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Behind the scenes of Macron’s failed gambit in Lebanon

How was the French initiative put together? What did the French president say to Lebanese leaders, and what was their reaction? And nearly three months later, why has nothing come of Paris’ intervention in Lebanese affairs? This is the story of French diplomacy in the Lebanese quagmire

Behind the scenes of Macron’s failed gambit in Lebanon

Emmanuel Macron at the Résidence des Pins on Sept. 1, 2020. (AFP)

Aug. 4, 2020. It’s been a few days since Emmanuel Macron settled down at Fort Brégançon, the summer residence of French presidents. The day looks to be rather calm and pleasant. The weather is fine, France believes it has successfully ended its nationwide lockdown. The president takes the opportunity to make his first official visit to paramedics and police officers in Toulon.

But, at around 5 p.m., everything speeds up in a matter of minutes.

A huge explosion shakes all of Lebanon and is felt as far away as Cyprus. Two explosive blasts have just torn through the port of Beirut.

The first videos of the explosion give an idea of the scale of the disaster. Gwendal Rouillard, French MP for Morbihan (Brittany Region), whose wife is Lebanese, receives several videos of the blast and immediately contacts Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who, in turn, gets directly in touch with Macron.

The French president has naturally been informed of the situation by the teams at the French Embassy in Beirut. Many senior officials, however, are on vacation, including French Ambassador to Lebanon Bruno Foucher; Emmanuel Bonne, the president’s diplomatic adviser; and Patrick Durel, adviser to the president on North Africa and the Middle East.

The first reports are alarming. The explosion is massive and several areas of the capital appear ravaged. In France, contacts intensify and one thing becomes clear very quickly: we must get to Beirut as soon as possible.

Bernard Mourad, a French-Lebanese investment banker and an old friend of Macron, feels the obligation to send him a message via Telegram: “I allowed myself to tell him that the Lebanese people would feel abandoned if no one shows up there right now. And that if France did not play this role, no one would.”

The decision to head to Lebanon is taken within 10 minutes of the disaster and is confirmed within hours. “Who could imagine that we would not come to Lebanon under these circumstances?” says a member of the French team, as though this is the obvious thing to do, regardless of who the president is.

Snap visits to Beirut in the midst of a crisis are almost customary for Élysée tenants. In 1983, François Mitterrand arrived in Beirut within hours of the suicide bombing at the Drakkar, a building near the French barracks in the Lebanese capital.

In 2005, Jacques Chirac flew in to offer his condolences to the family of Rafik Hariri two days after the attack that claimed the former Lebanese prime minister’s life.

Macron’s visit is prepared in 16 hours — a remarkable feat given the security issues in a city that has just been blown up.

Foucher returns to Beirut as a matter of urgency as security teams arrive on the scene on the eve of the president’s arrival in Beirut. “There was no time for procrastination. We told ourselves, we have to be there and then we see what happens,” a French diplomat says.

Macron lands in Beirut on Aug. 6, in his first visit to the country since he took office. He arrives in a city largely destroyed. It is a visit that has been a long time coming, but it is happening under completely unexpected circumstances. The visit had been prepared and postponed many times before.

Macron had been, in fact, due to visit in 2018, a few months after the CEDRE international conference in support of Lebanon, to weigh the progress. His visit was rescheduled to 2019 and then to 2020.

But since nothing has changed one iota, why travel, if only to recognize failure? The French president had even given up the trip planned for the ceremony to commemorate Greater Lebanon’s centenary, proclaimed by Gen. Henri Gouraud at the Résidence des Pins — the most symbolic event in French-Lebanese relations.

‘He knows Lebanon’s history very well’

All the elements, however, were already there for a rendezvous between Macron and Lebanon. He had been to Lebanon during the 2017 French presidential campaign and, in the words of one of his close associates, “fell in love with the country.”

“The reception had been fabulous. Lebanese had a real curiosity about this liberal belonging to a socialist government,” says a Lebanese banker who organized the arrival of the then-candidate. The trip was to allow him to develop his stature as a statesman, but also to encourage generous Lebanese to contribute to his campaign. There was no fundraising during the visit, but the fact remains that Lebanese came third among foreign contributors to Macron’s campaign, with 148,000 euros raised.

In the first round of the presidential election, however, Macron won only 16 percent of the vote in Lebanon, lagging far behind François Fillion with 60 percent of Lebanese ballots.

Elected president, Macron makes the Land of Cedars one of his top priorities in the region, namely because of an entourage that is very conducive to developing these relations.

First, there is his friend Bernard Mourad, who served as his special adviser during the campaign. Macron “knows Lebanon’s history very well and knows how complicated it is,” assures Mourad.

Emmanuel Bonne, his diplomatic adviser, is a former ambassador to Lebanon and is fond of the country. Bonne is still very much involved in the Lebanese dossier, so much so that many consider him today to be Paris’ second ambassador to Beirut.

Bernard Émié, the head of the Directorate-General for External Security, and another former ambassador to Beirut, is also involved in the management of the Lebanese file.

Finally, there is his friend from the École Nationale d’Administration, Aurélien Lechevallier, who is a former director of the Institut Français in Lebanon and who served as adviser to the president until 2019, when he was appointed ambassador to South Africa.

In other words, relative to its size and strategic importance, Lebanon occupies a significant place in diplomatic conversations at the Élysée. “Every week for three years, we discuss the Lebanese issue within the presidential circle. We’ve been used to working together for years. We all know each other very well,” says the aforementioned member of the French team.

Macron arrives in Lebanon with several calculations in mind: we must mark the occasion, show that France can regain the initiative in the region, after its failures in Libya and its attempts to mediate between the US and Iran, and, above all, come to the aid of a country with which relations go far beyond traditional diplomatic issues.

This is primarily a humanitarian emergency. The Lebanese state, at least what remains of it, does not possess the necessary means to respond to a disaster of such a scale. The country is in dire need of help, first aid workers, and reconstruction of the damaged houses and the destroyed port.

Once again, logistics are put in place in record time. Paris charters three planes, including one provided by the CMA CGM group headed by French-Lebanese Rodolphe Saadé, who cooperates closely with the Élysée throughout the operation.

“The French initiative,” as it will later be called, has yet to be born. But it is already being cooked behind the scenes, in a rush. Its outlines have yet to be clearly defined.

Ten days earlier, Jean-Yves Le Drian had come to Beirut to sound the alarm over the situation and stir up a hornet’s nest before the country’s anticipated collapse.

“Help us help you,” the French minister had almost implored, recalling for the umpteenth time that the release of international aid, the only way to get Lebanon back on track, was conditional on the implementation of reforms.

What more could France do? Completely give up on Lebanon? Force it to make reforms? But with what means of pressure and for what outcome in light of this emergency? Save the country anyway, and put it on a drip once more, knowing that it is sick with an incurable disease?

“We have learned from the failures of Paris I, II and III,” says a French diplomat, referring to past international aid conferences for Lebanon. From the very beginning, the mission was impossible, with the deck stacked against it.

‘You have all been involved’

Macron has barely landed in Beirut before he appears at the port and then in the disaster-stricken Gemmayzeh neighborhood. It did not occur to any of the Lebanese politicians to go there before him, or to at least join him in this walkabout. The French president is greeted like the Messiah. Almost as if in a trance, Macron, the fierce politician, puts on a show so theatrically mastered that it seems sincere.

He is in friendly, largely pro-France territory in Gemmayzeh where he will stay, unplanned, for almost half an hour, much to the delight of local and international journalists.

Macron strolls through the destroyed neighborhood, in a walkabout that makes headlines around the world. Everyone is shouting and shoving, taking their masks off and putting them back on. Everyone wants to get closer to him, touch him, talk to him, beg him to help them get rid of this political class that has been leading the country for decades.

The Lebanese Army appears to be completely overwhelmed by this foreign president who mingles with people and takes his jacket off.

Anger mixes with euphoria, revolutionary songs with demands for interference, in a moment so authentic and yet so absurd that it lays the groundwork for a misunderstanding that will arise between Macron and the Lebanese. They are expecting a revolution that he is not in a position to offer to them. He comes for the reforms, not for the revolution.

But in Gemmayzeh, in this electric atmosphere, Macron gets carried away by hubris. “He can feel the atmosphere, he understands what the Lebanese expect,” a Western diplomat says.

The French president is going far — too far, as he will realize later. “I am here today. I will propose to them a new political pact this afternoon and I will be back on Sept. 1. If they don’t stick to their commitments, I shall bear responsibility,” he promises a man who calls out to him.

A new political pact? Does he wish to change the constitution and alter the community balance? Is he aware of how these words will be received by the Lebanese? In the evening, during a press conference, journalists will dedicate half of their questions to this subject.

“Communication was bad at this time. There was a lack of preparation,” a Western diplomat explains. “The president’s idea was to organize a major national dialogue that would overcome the current obstacles,” says the member of the French team in defense of the president.

Moving on to a different scene: here, Macron the orator takes up the role of school teacher.

Macron invites the country’s main leaders to the Résidence des Pins. The only ones missing are Nabih Berri and Hassan Nasrallah, represented respectively by Ibrahim Azar and Mohammad Raad.

Macron’s tone is harsh and very straightforward. He accuses Lebanese officials of having led the country to an impasse and says that it is time to turn the page.

“You have all been involved in one way or another. All of you must now assume the responsibility to save the country,” the French president says in response to some political party leaders who consider themselves part of the opposition and therefore undeserving of the same treatment as those in power, according to several corroborating sources.

Prior to the meeting, Macron had requested that each political leader prepare a brief presentation in order to agree on the start of a road map. He wants to get straight to the point, to build on concrete projects that can be shared by everyone. The outcome: the session lasts for two hours and everyone develops their own rhetoric.

“Geagea speaks several times, Hariri talks a bit longer and Frangieh goes on endlessly,” says a politician present in the room. They discuss Iran, Palestine, Syria, and much less the central bank audit or reform to the electricity sector.

Samir Geagea and Sami Gemayel talk about Hezbollah’s weapons, arguing that it is impossible to have a dialogue with such a party. Hezbollah does not respond. Flies can be heard buzzing in the room.

Macron listens carefully before he ends the discussion. He lets everyone know that he is not here to deal with this problem, nor that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor the US-Iranian standoff.

“I am here for more tangible things: reforms, banks, corruption. I advise you not to raise other contentious points that cannot be resolved,” he tells the attendees.

“I can open the doors of the World Bank and the IMF for you, but on one condition: reform,” he adds. The question of Hezbollah’s arms remains the elephant in the room. In the president’s mind, it is not possible to launch an initiative without Hezbollah, the strongest party in the Lebanese arena. “This is a problem, but not an immediate one,” explains a French diplomat.

The French president takes Mohammad Raad aside, as the latter insists that Hezbollah will not agree to any condition imposed on it. The deal is clear: Paris ought to treat Hezbollah on an equal footing with the rest of the Lebanese parties, but the Shiite party has to play the game in return. This bias will earn France much criticism and will certainly complicate the initiative from a geopolitical point of view.

But was there any other way around the matter? Would marginalizing the Shiite party or adopting a more aggressive policy toward it have stepped up the implementation of reforms necessary to save the country? Nothing is less sure. With Hezbollah in the equation, short-term change is unlikely. Without the party, it is impossible.

‘We realized that Macron was preparing for Hariri’s return’

In an adjoining room, members of civil society, informed that morning that the French president wanted to meet them too, are getting impatient. The meeting with politicians lasts much longer than expected. The atmosphere is weird. There are about 30 personalities invited, many of whom fear that Macron is placing the very same political establishment back on track.

They are trying to organize themselves and to choose spokespersons who can represent everyone to send a message of unity to the French president. They fail. There is not enough time, too much ego and everyone is looking after their own interests, even though they hail from cultural, educational, health or justice backgrounds, as well as from political parties from civil society.

On the other side, the session with politicians is over. The big bosses emerge from the room, one after the other, with empty eyes and dejected faces. Only Sami Gemayel seems to keep a smile on his face.

“When you hear the president repeating everything that we have been saying for years, it is only normal that you feel satisfied,” he explains a few weeks later, with the same smile on his face.

Macron joins members of civil society. He goes around the room, as everyone introduces themselves and chats for a few minutes with the president. As time ticks by, the invitees realize that he does not intend to bring everyone together for a more in-depth discussion.

“He was there to talk to the people, not to set the world to rights,” says a person present in the room. Several invitees are irritated as they consider this a lack of consideration of their presence. Others explain to the president that parties from civil society ought to be supported to form an emergency government.

“I am not the president of Lebanon. It’s up to you to build a counter-power,” replies Macron, according to a source in the room. The majority of political figures emerge from the meeting bitterly disappointed. “We realized that Macron was preparing for Hariri’s return,” says one of them.

The press conference that comes next sums up the day — the topics discussed, the general atmosphere, the excessive expectations, the legitimate doubts and the passionate relations.

Lebanese journalists applaud every intervention of the president before the dumbfounded eyes of their French colleagues. Macron confirms that he will be back on Sept. 1 and expects the situation to go in the right direction by then.

“Because it’s France, because it’s Lebanon, because it’s you, because it’s us,” he says with just the right amount of emotion before he ends his speech with “Bhebbak ya Lebnen” — I love you, Lebanon.

Optimism prevails among the French. They have faith, despite the difficulties. The explosion is a turning point that must bring about a change in the attitude of the local political class. Paris is counting on awareness in the streets to maintain pressure.

‘He’s my friend, but I don’t think it can go through’

Back in France, Macron has to manage the controversies caused by his initiative in Lebanon. The president is accused of interference and neocolonialism. A paradox, since he has declined for 24 hours the calls from some Lebanese to take in hand the destiny of their nation.

“Criticism of colonialism is both stupid and cliché. It was France that created Greater Lebanon and it is only normal for France to come to our aid at such a time,” argues Walid Joumblatt.

Controversies swell on both sides of the Mediterranean over France’s real intentions, as Paris dispatches its Tonnerre helicopter carrier to the Beirut port.

France is accused of seeking to lay its hands on the port to counter Ankara’s ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean and to gain a share of the gas resources in the region.

“We have interests and we assume responsibilities [for these]. France is developing a strategy in the eastern Mediterranean. We have consolidated partnerships with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, and this must include Lebanon,” explains Gwendal Rouillard, who is close to Le Drian. “This is in the interest of Lebanon but also of France and its companies, including CMA CGM,” he says. Meanwhile, a Western diplomat asserts, “The Lebanese port is not of great strategic importance.”

Back in Lebanon, old habits are quickly regaining the upper hand. Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s resignation on Aug. 10 is followed by weeks of talks, petty negotiations and the usual role-playing games that Lebanese politics does so well.

Macron calls all political leaders one by one to urge them to form a “mission government.” During his visit to Lebanon, he had spoken of a government of national unity, giving rise to some confusion. The term was swiftly clarified by Élysée advisers.

“In France, the expression refers to the fact that parties give way to a group of individuals who defend the general interest and put their differences aside to save the homeland,” explains a French diplomat. “In Lebanon, it is perceived as a return to the usual sharing of the cake,” he says.

Macron and his advisers are testing the waters with each leader. “What do you think of Saad Hariri’s return?” Everyone gets into position.

On the French side, the return of the former Lebanese prime minister is not something imperative, but Diab’s failed venture proved that it was absolutely necessary to obtain Hariri’s approval on the choice of a Sunni figure to lead the future government.

Hariri is the preferred option of the Shiite parties, but lacks the support of the Christians, for several reasons. Joumblatt is also not in favor of Hariri’s return, which risks stirring up tensions in the street, according to the Progressive Socialist Party leader.

“I went to Berri to explain to him why I was not in favor of Hariri’s return. He was surprised. I suggested the name of Nawaf Salam. Berri told me, ‘He’s my friend. He’s a good diplomat, but I don’t think this would work out,’” Jumblatt says. “I got the message,” he adds. Salam is a figure accepted by civil society and part of the traditional political groups. But for Hezbollah, he is too close to the Americans.

“Then I thought of Tammam Salam. I visited him to talk to him about it. He politely replied that he did not want to repeat the same experience [he had with] with Gebran Bassil,” adds the Druze leader.

Time is ticking away and negotiations are leading nowhere. Macron is expected to return to Lebanon in the next few days and the country has yet to agree on a name for the prime minister.

But 24 hours before the president’s arrival, politicians will surprise everyone by pulling the name of a complete stranger out of their hat.

Mustapha Adib, a former chief of staff for Najib Mikati and Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany, was endorsed, in a matter of hours and by almost all parties, to rise to the most important post in the Lebanese political system.

“There have been very high-level discussions between Paris and Beirut on this subject. He had an acceptable profile, links with former Sunni prime ministers and an ability to be accepted by all,” says a source informed on the issue. A month later, Adib will buy a one-way ticket back to Berlin.

‘A man who likes to take risks’

Aug. 31, 2020. On the plane to Beirut, Macron explains his strategy for Lebanon in an interview with Rym Momtaz, a journalist from the American website Politico who is well versed in both issues: Macronian diplomacy and Lebanon.

“I am taking a risky bet, I am aware of that. … I am placing the only thing I have on the table: my political capital,” explains the president, who had to go down this road of humility, forced by the Lebanese reality.

The man is both intellectual and instinctive, capable of handling complex issues in a short time, but also of seizing an opportunity when it presents itself.

In the aftermath of the Aug. 4 Beirut port blast, he senses the moment and throws himself into the Lebanese pit. The tragedy opens a breach through which Macron rushes to put France back at the heart of the local political game with a specific objective: prevent the total collapse of the country, which, according to all indicators, will happen in the coming months.

If he pulls it off, he will be remembered as the one who saved Lebanon and allowed France to strike a blow across the region. But if he fails, the initiative will, in this case, reveal the limits of French power in the Middle East, as well as his arrogance in wanting to continue playing with the big players.

A French president who visits Lebanon, a small country of a few million inhabitants on the other side of the Mediterranean, twice in less than a month speaks volumes.

Admittedly, this country is the last French “territory” in the Middle East. Lebanon is also an ideal ground for France to throw in its two cents on several major regional issues — the war in Syria, the US-Iranian standoff and the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Yet this does not justify the highest authority of the French executive placing its “political capital on the table” in a rescue mission that looked impossible from the very beginning.

Is Lebanon worth all this? In France’s eyes, the answer is obvious. Paris cannot, for historical and geopolitical reasons, resign itself to watching the Lebanese ship sink and not lift a finger. Thus, the French initiative was launched.

It is because France, unlike other European countries, has not given up its desire to be a power in the region in which it has deployed so many human and material resources.

It is because Macron is passionate about history and wants, in turn, to write it in the region. That is why he took the risk of setting foot in the Lebanese quagmire.

“He is a man who likes to take risks and who always seeks to find solutions, especially when he is told it is complicated,” says Mourad, the French-Lebanese investment banker and a friend of the French president for 10 years.

He continues, “We must not forget where he comes from. He succeeded in blowing up a bipartisan political system that has existed since the beginning of the Fifth Republic.”

How do you learn to be modest when you have captured power right from under everyone’s nose at only 39 and never been elected before? How can you not believe, after all this, that your determination alone can be enough to move mountains?

‘Hariri messed it up completely’

Macron arrives in Lebanon on the evening of Aug. 31 for a highly symbolic visit to celebrate the centenary of the country in agony, but also to get his hands dirty with Lebanese politics in a bid to relaunch an initiative that got bogged down the moment he left after his first visit.

After a meeting with Feyrouz away from the cameras, Macron meets with Saad Hariri at the Résidence des Pins, late in the evening. The Hariri family has been Paris’ main ally on the Lebanese political scene for 25 years.

Between the two men, the relationship is good on a personal level and has been strengthened by difficult times. Hariri, however, has greatly disappointed his French interlocutors over the past few years, to the extent that, at one point, seeing him out of the political scene was not considered so bad.

And for good reason: Macron had repeatedly engaged his “political capital” for the then-prime minister. He pulled him out of Saudi clutches back in November 2017. He organized CEDRE, the international aid conference for Lebanon, in April 2018, one month before the Lebanese legislative elections, and he made Hariri the main interlocutor to manage the initiative, already conceived to avoid the bankruptcy of the Lebanese state. But months went by and the reforms never came.

Undoubtedly, Hariri’s task was not made any easier by his partners in government, who were more engaged in fighting for the lion’s share of the spoils than keeping the commitments they had made to the international community.

Yet the Sunni leader is far from being irreproachable on this level. Add to this a certain sense of nonchalance, and he ended up ruffling the Élysée’s feathers.

“Hariri regarded CEDRE as his personal business and relied on a team of two economists who were unable to handle an $11 billion plan,” says a source familiar with the matter.

“Whenever he spoke directly to Macron, he would mess it up completely, although every effort was made to avoid this scenario,” they add.

The failure of Diab’s government, however, pushes Paris to reconsider. In the current political context, the absence of Sunni political coverage, something only Hariri can really offer, remains a thorn in the side of any prime minister — a thorn so troublesome that it necessarily ends up paralyzing him.

“We understood that Hariri wanted to continue calling the shots,” says a member of the French team.

It is past midnight at the Résidence des Pins and the day ahead looks like a marathon. Macron, however, takes the time to discuss affairs with Hariri, who at the time holds no official position, to ensure that the head of the Future Movement will facilitate the rest of the operations.

The following weeks will confirm that the intention was good, but the promises were far too fragile.

The visit can’t get any more symbolic than this. Macron is in Lebanon for the second time in less than a month. He is at the Résidence des Pins, meeting with the country’s political leaders, at the very same mythical place where Gen. Gouraud proclaimed Greater Lebanon exactly 100 years ago.

The day before, a complete stranger by the name of Mustapha Adib had been appointed prime minister-designate after being endorsed by all political parties, save the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb. The name had been proposed by Najib Mikati after consultation with Lebanon’s other former prime ministers.

“We agreed to support whatever candidate Saad Hariri proposed. There were three names: Mohamad El-Hout [the CEO of MEA, Lebanon’s flag carrier], Ghassan Oueidat [the country’s chief prosecutor], and Mustapha Adib. President Aoun opted for Adib, so naturally, we followed this choice,” explains Afif Nabulsi, Hezbollah’s spokesman.

Adib has a good reputation and is well-connected politically, which should facilitate the negotiation process, according to the French side.

“We were not so much interested in the name of the future prime minister as in his ability and to act and get the go-ahead from Hariri,” explains a French diplomat.

‘We are not here to take instructions’

A few minutes prior to the meeting, Paris distributes a road map summarizing the main reforms requested by the international community if Lebanon wishes to benefit from external aid.

The points are precise and technical; the meeting is supposed to be rational and not drag on. The French plan bypasses almost all contentious subjects on the political scene. There is no mention of Hezbollah’s arms or Lebanon’s foreign policy.

“We did not pretend to solve in a few weeks what Lebanon and its friends have not been able to solve in 30 years,” says a member of the French team. Macron takes the floor to urge political leaders to put the road map into action as soon as possible.

One has to imagine the scene: the young French president enthusiastically telling the old Lebanese politicians off. Those politicians, however, have seen others do the same and it does not sit well with them.

“Macron is a Cartesian and Descartes had never been to the Arab world,” says Joumblatt amusingly.

The meeting drags on, as it did during the first visit. “We are not here to take instructions,” says Mohammad Raad, who represents Hezbollah. “These are not instructions, but recommendations,” replies Macron.

Overall, there is little debate about the road map. “I don’t think any of us took the time to read it carefully back then,” admits a Lebanese politician.

“We agreed with 90 percent of its content,” says Nabulsi. Only one point threatens to derail the entire initiative: the holding of early parliamentary elections.

Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement are against it. The FPM has the most to lose in the event of early elections. The LF and Kataeb threaten to leave the room if this item is off the table.

Macron realizes that it will be impossible to reach a compromise on this matter. Reforms are an urgently pressing issue, while elections are scheduled for 2022 regardless, and the civil society parties are not yet ready to toss their hats in the ring or yield significant results. The president decides to take it off the table.

“It was the only thing that gave us hope,” says Gemayel. Why did he not withdraw from the meeting then? “We expressed our dissatisfaction, but it was useless to withdraw from a meeting and break off ties with France, which has all the good intentions in the world for Lebanon,” explains the Kataeb leader.

With this out of the way, it is now up to every politician in the room to commit to respecting the road map and form a “mission government” within two weeks.

Joumblatt gets the ball rolling but Hariri blocks it. The Sunni leader claims he is committed but does not seem to be fully on board. He says that he will do everything to support Adib’s actions but makes it clear that he is not ready for all the compromises.

It is almost 10 p.m. when Macron appears before journalists for the press conference before the end of his visit. The president got what he wanted and announced it: the leaders promised to form a government within two weeks and to undertake the first reforms within six weeks.

He also announces that he will return in December to take stock of the situation — three months from now, for one last chance. We want to believe it, from both shores of the Mediterranean.

“I was very hopeful at the time. I was like, ‘How could things get even worse for us?’ Then, geopolitics had the upper hand,” says Joumblatt.

‘He is not that different from our leaders after all’

There is a special atmosphere this evening in the courtyard of the Résidence des Pins. It feels like the day is not over yet and something is about to happen. A few minutes after the end of the press conference, a commotion is heard in the middle of the courtyard.

Macron lashes out at Le Figaro journalist Georges Malbrunot, reprimanding him for writing that France was getting ready to sanction Lebanese leaders, including Hariri, in cooperation with the Americans.

The quarrel lasts several minutes, part of which is captured on cameras and will animate the debates on French TV sets the next day.

“This contributed to further blurring communication,” says a French diplomat. Did the French president want to send a message to the local leaders? Or did he fly off the handle after a long, uninterrupted day that started in the early morning in the cedars of the village Jaj?

Local journalists discover a new side of his character: a democratic head of state capable of humiliating a journalist in front of a large audience. “He’s not that different from our leaders after all,” says one journalist sarcastically.

This quarrel, however, not only creates controversy but also confusion, as it entertains a fantasy born during the previous visit of Macron: that he would be willing to sanction the entire political class, for corruption and/or ties to terrorism. During his first press conference, the French president admitted for the first time that he was not ruling out any options.

Does this mean French sanctions on Lebanon? On an allied country and leaders with whom France has maintained close relations for years? At the diplomatic level, this has never happened before. And how does one justify such sanctions? On what legal basis and with what objective?

In September, before journalists, Macron moderates expectations: the option is on the table, but it is not a priority and cannot be a measure in response to the absence of reforms.

A month later, at a press conference in Paris dedicated to Lebanon, he completely disregards this possibility, much to the dismay of all who saw it as the only way to force local politicians to give ground.

“This is the American way, not the French way,” the French president says.

For weeks, however, Paris had actually considered this option. Why reverse course? Wasn’t the stick a better option than the carrot?

“It was a game of bluff. We realized that people expected too much from sanctions. We dropped the subject,” says the aforementioned French team member.

Back in Beirut, where the spirit of the French initiative seems to have already been forgotten, diplomatic adviser Bonne, DGSE chief Émié and Ambassador Foucher are nevertheless in daily contact with the Lebanese leaders.

But local politics has its own reasons that defy logic — even more so when taken with a pinch of real or fantasy geopolitics.

In the Lebanese arena, a Sunni-Shiite standoff is taking place. The Sunni camp, represented by the clan of four former prime ministers, seeks to take advantage of the French initiative to take revenge on the Shiites. This is especially true after Diab’s failed venture and after years of having to bow their heads in the face of Hezbollah’s arrogance.

The regional dynamic is playing out in their favor, now that the Shiite party is cornered from every angle. It is time to bring to mind that since the Taif Accords, the Constitution stipulates that it is the prime minister who forms the government with the approval of the president. In other words, the Shiites are excluded from the process.

To have their say and to block any action that does not suit them, the Shiite parties will demand two things: to keep the Ministry of Finance — as the majority of government decrees need the minister’s signature — and to name all Shiite ministers in the government.

This is out of the question for the Sunnis. On the recommendation of the former prime ministers, Adib decides not to consult any of the major political parties, breaking a custom that has been around for years.

“Every time we came up with an idea or touched on a topic, Adib’s entourage told us that he had to get Hariri’s approval first,” Nabulsi says.

Tensions are running high and the situation appears to have reached a deadlock very quickly. How did things get there, while the French president had promised a government within two weeks?

“Macron was hoodwinked by the Sunnis,” says a well-informed Lebanese analyst. “This is what I told my interlocutors in Paris in September: it’s messed up, because everyone in town knows that Adib is not consulting anyone and that all the names are fed to him by former prime ministers,” the source adds.

The cabinet lineup and reshuffling were not part of the French road map. “We have already gone far, at the presidential level. If we had done so [suggested a lineup], we would have been accused even more of interference,” says a French diplomat.

“To go into this would have complicated their task,” notes a Lebanese politician.

‘Hezbollah thinks in square millimeters’

The men on the French side know Lebanese politics like the back of their hand, having practiced it for years. And yet, even they seem to have been overwhelmed by this turn of events.

“We quickly realized that Adib’s attitude was going to be a problem, but we didn’t think it would block everything,” says a French diplomat.

Hariri’s attitude surprises everyone. The former prime minister has for years adopted a moderate stance vis-à-vis Hezbollah. And now he has decided to toughen it up just as he is put back in the saddle by the French initiative. This is surprising but understandable, given the local and regional tenor. “What is at stake for him is the leadership within the Sunni community,” explains a French team member.

In order not to be overtaken by his brother Bahaa and other Sunni hawks, he is forced to toughen up. King Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Hariri have been very cold for years, denounces Hezbollah’s hegemony at the United Nations General Assembly. The Sunni leader gets the message.

Riyadh does not have a favorable view of the French initiative that gives political credibility to Hezbollah; to the contrary, the kingdom considers the collapse of Lebanon to be weakening its enemy.

The US is not standing idly by. In an op-ed published by French daily Le Figaro, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes scathing comments against Iran and Hezbollah. This comes days after Washington announced new sanctions on Youssef Fenianos, member of the Marada Party, and Ali Hassan Khalil, a right-hand man of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Both men are considered allies of Hezbollah. The US would later go even further, sanctioning Gebran Bassil, the leader of the FPM and the president’s own son-in-law.

“We knew there would be US sanctions, but we did not know the details or the timing,” says a French diplomat before Washington blacklisted Bassil, admitting that this further complicated things for the French.

“It is the American administration steamroller that was set in motion with an agenda different from that of Paris,” a well-informed source says.

A few weeks later, Berri will announce the resumption of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel for the demarcation of maritime borders. In the meantime, the sanctions will harden the position of the Shiite parties, and, above all, reinforce the idea that they are not talking to the right interlocutor.

Pressured by Paris, Hariri agrees to compromise and hands the Finance Ministry over to the Shiites on the condition that his camp names the minister. This is out of the question for the Shiites. “Why would Hariri name our ministers?” they complain to the French.

“We considered you as a political interlocutor, but the time has come for things to move forward,” the French assured.

But the Shiite duo, i.e. Amal and Hezbollah, is not giving up, not on the sectarian one-upmanship nor geopolitical issues.

Hezbollah finds itself in a paradoxical situation. It has never been stronger, both in Lebanon and on the regional level. But all its positions are weakened and it feels cornered from all sides. In Lebanon, the party is well aware that it is losing some of its Christian cover and risks ending up alone against everyone else.

In the region, Hezbollah is witnessing the emergence of an alliance between the US, Israel and the Gulf states at the gates of Iran. The more cornered the Shiite party feels, the less inclined it is to back off.

“In the West, we think in square kilometers. Hezbollah thinks in square centimeters, if not in square millimeters,” says the source in the French team.

For his part, a Lebanese politician believes “for Hezbollah, Lebanon is a card to be given to the Americans, not the French.”

‘We played all our cards’

Adib steps down on Sept. 26 after failing to form a government. At a press conference the next day, Macron vilifies Lebanese political leaders, naming Hariri and blaming Hezbollah for the failure of the initiative.

“I am ashamed” of the Lebanese political leaders, says the French president after clinically assessing the situation in the country. Macron leaves the door open, but his anger is clear: he knows that his bet on Lebanon is lost, and, barring a miracle, the country’s collapse can no longer be avoided.

“The problem at that point was that we played all our cards. When the president intervenes, we can no longer increase the pressure,” says the French team member, who believes that the tight deadlines did not allow international and regional partners to get involved.

A month later, Hariri makes his big comeback as he is designated prime minister once again. The local press is convinced that he is backed by the French and has the green light from the US and Saudi Arabia.

Anne Grillo, the new French ambassador to Beirut, says Paris has had discussions with its partners, but that France “will judge by actions.”

In any case, contacts between Paris and Beirut are much less intense than in September. French diplomats are keen to set the record straight: “International aid is not going to magically unblock because Hariri has returned.”

France will never give up on Lebanon. The Macronian moment may, for now, have passed, unless the political class suddenly decides to achieve in a matter of weeks what it has failed to do in years.

Can the story end otherwise? “The December visit appears very compromised,” says a French diplomat.

“Meetings on Lebanon are held every day in Paris to prepare for this visit,” the French team member says. “We are aware of our limits, but we do not have the right to give up.”


This article originally appeared in French in two parts in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.


Aug. 4, 2020. It’s been a few days since Emmanuel Macron settled down at Fort Brégançon, the summer residence of French presidents. The day looks to be rather calm and pleasant. The weather is fine, France believes it has successfully ended its nationwide lockdown. The president takes the opportunity to make his first official visit to paramedics and police officers in...