A few days after the launch by French President Emmanuel Macron of a Saudi-French initiative to restore relations between Beirut and Riyadh — following the recent diplomatic row over now former Information Minister George Kurdahi’s comments on the conflict in Yemen — President Michel Aoun met Tuesday with the French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo. Certainly, the diplomat updated the president on the meeting Macron had with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and reiterated Riyadh's commitment to help Lebanon, which is in full economic collapse. But above all, Grillo defined Paris’ red lines on the Lebanese scene.
According to a statement released yesterday by the presidency, Grillo told the head of state that “Saudi Arabia has expressed its commitment to help Lebanon.”
“France has taken the first step” to achieve such an initiative, she added, according to the statement. “Lebanon, for its part, must do what has been asked of it and prove its honesty in terms of its commitment to implement reforms, especially structural ones, which require serious working tools to face the deep crisis it is going through,” she said.
During his visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Saturday, the French president had announced after a meeting with bin Salmon an initiative to assist Lebanon, including the creation of a “Franco-Saudi humanitarian support mechanism” that could be funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, in addition to a commitment on the restoration of relations between Beirut and Riyadh.
The restoration of relations is, however, linked to certain conditions, including “the need to limit the possession of weapons to the legal institutions of the state,” read the joint French-Saudi statement, in apparent reference to Hezbollah. Grillo also noted that “the international community and France attach importance to the organization of legislative, municipal and presidential elections next year, especially since they are eagerly awaited by the Lebanese.
The constants of Paris
Through these remarks, Grillo has clearly drawn what Paris considers to be red lines that should not be crossed. Perceived as the sponsor of the long political process that led to the establishment of the government of Nagib Mikati, France would like to see the cabinet revitalized in order to initiate the process of structural economic reforms, a necessary condition for any financial aid to Lebanon from donor countries.
However, the Mikati cabinet has been paralyzed since Oct. 12. Ministers affiliated with the Shiite parties the Amal Movement and Hezbollah have threatened to boycott the cabinet if the government fails to take action against the 2020 Beirut port explosion investigation head Judge Tarek Bitar. The probe seeks to prosecute several political figures associated with the parties. And this is where the second French red line is drawn: Paris is opposed to any barter that would remove Tarek Bitar from the investigation, our political columnist Mounir Rabih reports.
This is a firm stance that comes at a time when many speculate that a political-judicial package deal could be in the making behind the scenes. In its broad outlines, this agreement stipulates that the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by Aoun and led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, would ensure the quorum required for the holding of a parliamentary session during which the possibility of referring the political figures prosecuted in the port explosion probe to the Supreme Council — a judicial body tasked with trying presidents and ministers — would be discussed, as the two Shiite parties want.
In return, the appeal for the invalidation of the amendments to the electoral law, presented to the Constitutional Council by the FPM MPs, would be accepted, particularly with regard to the expatriate vote. In this case, the Lebanese diaspora would be allowed to elect six MPs in their own specialized constituency, as Aoun wants, rather than casting ballots in Lebanon’s existing 15 constituencies for all 128 parliamentary seats. The appeal has raised fears about the holding of the legislative elections, which France is keen on, as Grillo made clear to Michel Aoun. She thus defined the third French red line in relation to Beirut.
The Aoun-Macron call
The meeting between the head of state and the French ambassador comes at a time when contradictory information is circulating in the press about a telephone conversation between the Lebanese president and his French counterpart.
In a statement on Saturday, Macron said he would call Aoun the next day, Sunday, to update him on his discussions with bin Salman in Jeddah and the content of his telephone conversation with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which was briefly joined by the Saudi crown prince. But a source close to the presidency told L'Orient-Le Jour yesterday that no telephone conversation has taken place so far between Aoun and Macron.
“The meeting between Mr. Aoun and Ms. Grillo has prepared the climate for a telephone conversation,” this source said.
However, according to information reported by Mounir Rabih, the telephone conversation did take place on Sunday evening. The Elysee's tenant would have informed his interlocutor that Riyadh was willing to come to Lebanon’s aid, provided that certain commitments are respected.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.