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Analysis

The Strengths and Limits of the French "New Mandate" in Lebanon

Macron's initiative may come up against the incredible resilience of the political class and be hampered by the geopolitical calculations of local actors and regional powers.

The Strengths and Limits of the French

French President Emmanuel Macron and his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun, in Baabda on September 1, 2020. Gonzalo Fuentes/POOL/AFP

Emmanuel Macron seems to have made the Lebanese case a personal matter. While French presidents visit Lebanon at least once per term, he has pledged to return in December for the third time in less than six months. Lebanon thus takes an almost disproportionate place, given the low strategic stakes it represents, in the overloaded agenda of the French President.

Why? Because Lebanon is the last country in the Near East and the Middle East where France has a real influence without the need to rely on its allies; it is a francophone precinct in a region in turmoil. Because the Lebanese map allows it to position itself vis-à-vis several major geopolitical issues such as the US-Iran tug-of-war, the war in Syria or the Greek-Turkish tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Because it is certainly pleasant, especially for a politician, to be welcomed as the messiah and to have the feeling of being able to unblock an inextricable situation by his free will alone.

But the essential seems to be elsewhere for the French president. He wants to be part of a narrative that overlooks immediacy and that unites the two countries by a bond that goes beyond mere diplomatic relations, even between allies. "France and Lebanon are united by a common destiny," he said Tuesday evening.

In Macron’s mind, France cannot allow Lebanon to collapse without reacting. "I will not abandon you," he repeated several times in a message to both the Lebanese people and their leaders on whom he wishes to exert intense and continuous pressure.

By committing himself personally on the Lebanese front, Macron is taking a risk. He himself admitted in an interview with the US website Politico that he risks losing, in case he fails, part of his political credit on the international scene and particularly in the region, after having already suffered serious setbacks in Libya. He also risks being held responsible for this failure, as a "sponsor" of a process that gives a "last chance" to political leaders strongly reviled by a protest movement.

It is a difficult challenge: a political class that has been allergic to reform for decades, and where mistrust reigns supreme, must be forced to collectively carry out structural changes within a few weeks.

The French president set himself up as an arbiter of Lebanese politics, forcing the parties to commit themselves to a common roadmap and laying down a precise timetable to deliver the promises on time. It is as if Paris assumes (almost) once again, in this sequence, the role of a proxy power that defines the horizon and settles disputes between the parties. No one has played this role in Lebanon since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, which partly explains the en-suing consensus-based governance around the lowest common denominator. But where the influence of the Syrian regime was based on fear and personal arrangements, Paris relies on trust, accountability, and exigency.

Three Tools
This is the strength and the limit of the practice. Macron was able to bring all the political leaders together, side by side, for hours at the Résidence des Pins. No one can afford to boycott the initiative of the last country ready to reach out to Lebanon. They all accepted to be scolded and reprimanded. All gave their word to implement the expected reforms. But what is the political parties' word worth when they have already promised many times in the past to fundamentally change the system and have done nothing other than exacerbate its crudest features? Why should what was not done yesterday be done tomorrow?

We can think that they have their backs to the wall and that they have no other way out. But it can be argued on the other hand that this has already been the case for months and that the zaims are aware that they can lose everything if they saw off the branch on which they are sitting. The risk is that the French dynamic is only a parenthesis which, as soon as it closes, gives room for the return of Lebanese politics, including sharing the cake, permanent deadlocks, and paralyzing dissensions on essential themes. Macron will keep an eye.

"Trust is the other's problem," he said Tuesday night, quoting Emmanuel Levinas. The French president will exert maximum pressure on the Lebanese leaders through three tools: by making them accountable to their people in case of failure – it is doubtful, however, that this is of least concern to the Lebanese leaders; by not unblocking international aid, the only hope of getting Lebanon back on track – we can recall that the carrot has been put on the table for years and nothing has changed so far, and finally by threatening to proceed with individual sanctions on the basis of corruption cases or links with a terrorist group. This third tool is certainly the most likely to push the leaders to act. But the French president has made it clear that this is not, for the time being, relevant. "We do not initiate sanctions because people do not take their political responsibilities," he said.

Macron's initiative may come up against the incredible resilience of the Lebanese political class, part of which is staking nothing less than its survival. It may also be hampered by the geopolitical calculations of local actors and regional powers. If the Americans seem to be in a "wait and see" posture, Saudi Arabia is clearly not in favor of this approach, which includes Hezbollah. Iran might see it as a way to ease tensions and gain time, without knowing what concessions it would be prepared to make. Hezbollah has already vetoed early parliamentary elections. To what extent is the Shiite party ready to overturn the status quo, which it has been defending tooth and nail for months so that Lebanon receives the funding it urgently needs?


Emmanuel Macron seems to have made the Lebanese case a personal matter. While French presidents visit Lebanon at least once per term, he has pledged to return in December for the third time in less than six months. Lebanon thus takes an almost disproportionate place, given the low strategic stakes it represents, in the overloaded agenda of the French President.

Why? Because Lebanon is...