Le Drian on Lebanon crisis: Fix presidential deadlock or 'be ostracized'

Despite international frustration, a breakthrough in Lebanon's presidential vacuum could still happen in the coming weeks, the French envoy tells L'Orient-Le Jour.

Former French Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian poses during a photo session in Paris, on September 25, 2023. (Credit: JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Jean-Yves Le Drian, French President Emmanuel Macron's special envoy for Lebanon, has spoken out in an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour for the first time since his appointment. Macron in June tasked Le Drian with breaking the political deadlock and presidential vacuum in Lebanon. Le Drian has visited Lebanon three times so far this year.

In his interview, Le Drian gives an initial assessment of his mission, calling on Lebanese politicians to "find a third way" to overcome Lebanese political groups the duel over Marada leader Sleiman Frangieh and IMF official Jihad Azour as they seek to elect a new head of state following an 11-month presidential vacuum. Le Drian, a former French defense and foreign affairs minister, argues that the deadlock is "purely internal" and that there is "no disagreement" within the quintet (France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar). Finally, he warns local leaders, in veiled terms, of sanctions if they do not quickly find a solution to the crisis.

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Who is French envoy Le Drian and why does his visit to Beirut matter?

What assessment can you make of your mission so far? Has it helped to make progress?

My feeling, above all, is that Lebanon's survival is at stake, but the political actors, those who are responsible, remain in denial.

There has been no president for a year now, no prime minister for 18 months, the Parliament is not meeting, and the former head of the central bank is facing international charges. And in the meantime, the economic situation is deteriorating, and some people are living under the illusion that the diaspora or future gas resources, about which we know very little at this point, will solve the financial situation. Misery is present, and we continue to maintain tactical considerations. And that is truly intolerable.

This is an observation that you and many others have been making for several years now. But it seems to have no effect …

The mission entrusted to me by the president of the republic is a mediation mission aimed at finding a solution. But if they do not want to find a solution, I cannot impose it on them.

The latest meeting of the quintet in New York led to many rumors suggesting deep disagreements among the five powers involved in the issue and a desire to bury the French initiative. Is France isolated?

I can assure you that there is no disagreement, not even the slightest nuance, among the five. Those who have suggested otherwise are promoters of illusions intended to perpetuate confusion for tactical considerations. The five are constantly in communication and in agreement. But everyone has had enough! The Lebanese leaders need to know that the last meeting of the quintet was marked by irritation at their denial and their inability to overcome their own contradictions or own clans. The five are wondering how long they will continue to help Lebanon.

Local actors continue to hope for a major regional agreement that would unlock the presidential election …

That is called irresponsibility and escapism. In the minds of the five, the Lebanese must assume their responsibility. And if it does not work, it will be their fault.

So you believe that the deadlock is purely internal?

Yes, the deadlock is internal. I believe that the confrontation between the two blocs of the June 14 electoral session (one supporting the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh, the other that of Jihad Azour) will not bring any solution. And maintaining this conflict will lead to failure. Therefore, Lebanese actors must look for a third way. Everyone knows that this is how it should end. And it should end as soon as possible because emergencies cannot wait.

Did you sense during your last visit an opening towards seeking this third way?

When I make these statements, no one contradicts me, which is progress. But it is still far from finished today, so I intend to come back at least one more time.

During your last visit, you benefitted from real Saudi support. What do you expect from Saudi Arabia on the Lebanese issue? Do you believe the kingdom is ready to reinvest in Lebanon?

I noted with interest that Saudi Arabia is getting back into the game and believes that the Lebanese vacuum can have negative implications for the entire region in terms of security and economy, and that we must therefore work together to find a way out of the impasse. They are making this known now.

How do you envision the rest of your mission?

My role as a facilitator is to relay to each actor what the others think since they do not talk to each other. Some have shared their observations with me in writing, others orally. I will invite everyone to see the areas of convergence, and then there will need to be a sequence of consultations. I no longer use the term "dialogue" because I see that it is poisonous in Lebanon due to its historical, divisive connotations.

Following the consultations, I hope that Parliament Speaker Berri will convene the Parliament for consecutive and open sessions, as he has publicly pledged to do. All of this should happen in the coming weeks.

And if the consultations do not lead to an agreement on a third way?

They will have to take responsibility for it. I hope that the actors are aware that a way out must be found; otherwise, they will be ostracized by the international community. No one will want to see them anymore, and it will be unnecessary to seek support here or there.

Should the election of a candidate representing a third way take place before the end of the year?

I see who you are thinking of, but there can be others. As a mediator, I believe that a solution can be found on a third way. Then, names are circulating, and it is up to the Lebanese to decide. The period of consultation can serve this purpose.

Would this agreement on a third way be purely internal?

Purely internal and solely focused on the election of the president of the republic.

Is Paris considering sanctioning those responsible for the deadlock?

They will have to face the consequences of their irresponsibility. I believe that everyone understands what that means.

How do you explain that France has long supported a ticket of Sleiman Frangieh and Nawaf Salam? Has that page definitively been turned?

Neither of the current candidacies seems to me capable of solving the problem. And I say this as the personal envoy of the president of the republic.

Paris has been accused of playing into Hezbollah's hands for its interests in Lebanon and the region. What is your response to these criticisms?

What interests? In this matter, France wishes for Lebanon to stand strong and begin implementing the necessary reforms for its survival. France has only one goal: to have a Lebanon that preserves its territorial integrity and regains the momentum and strength needed to carry out essential reforms.

Since Emmanuel Macron's first visit following the August 2020 explosion at the port, Paris has been heavily involved in the Lebanese issue without achieving any results. Has France chosen the wrong approach in Lebanon? Can it exist otherwise?

France is leading this mediation at the request of the Lebanese. Not a single political leader has come to me and said, "What are you doing here?" On the contrary, I have been well received. Now, it is necessary to recall that the defense of sovereignty requires the election of a president of the republic.

By always prioritizing dialogue and compromise at the expense of power dynamics, is France not making the same mistake with Hezbollah that it may have made with Moscow?

The logic of power dynamics has led to the disappearance of the Lebanese state. We must go beyond that and find a solution that allows Lebanese communities to live together. And among the forces that represent these communities, Hezbollah is also present.

Are you optimistic that Lebanon will have a new president before Christmas?

I hope that Lebanon will have a president after a year of vacancy. I believe it is possible without anyone losing face.

Why would it be resolved today rather than yesterday?

There is an awareness that now the fundamentals are at stake and that the issue is no longer the election of the president, but the very existence of Lebanon.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, French President Emmanuel Macron's special envoy for Lebanon, has spoken out in an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour for the first time since his appointment. Macron in June tasked Le Drian with breaking the political deadlock and presidential vacuum in Lebanon. Le Drian has visited Lebanon three times so far this year. In his interview, Le Drian gives an initial assessment of...