(Bloomberg Opinion) — There were moments during Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut on Thursday when it seemed that the French president was in a mosh pit, crowd-surfing over waves of adulation and anger: The adulation was for him, and far more than he might reasonably expect from a Parisian throng; the anger was for the entire Lebanese political class, who are being collectively blamed for the devastating blasts that shattered much of the city on Tuesday.
It is easy enough to cavil, as some have, that Macron’s walkabout in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood was political theater. He was always going to get a friendlier reception in a Francophile quarter of East Beirut than, say, in the southern suburbs controlled by Hezbollah.
But there is no gainsaying the fact that the French president did what few local leaders have cared (or dared) to: listen to the grievances of a traumatized people and promise to help.
In Gemmayzeh and later at a press conference in the French embassy, Macron said all the right things: The Lebanese were not alone in their grief, he would rally international donors to help rebuild their damaged capital, and the money would not go to the “corrupt hands” of their politicians. He pledged to return to Beirut on Sept. 1 to personally verify that French aid, funneled through non-governmental organizations, is going “directly to the people of Lebanon.”
He also called for an international investigation into the blasts, “to make sure nothing remains hidden and no doubts linger.”
It was Macron at his most statesmanlike, speaking not only for France but for the wider world, and promising to cut through a geopolitical Gordian knot. But the president has a poor track record in turning rhetoric into results.
His attempt to mediate the U.S.-Iranian confrontation last year earned him only scorn from both sides. His recent finger-pointing over Libya’s civil war has spared him no blushes. His enthusiasm for the fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa has left French forces in what looks like a quagmire.
He may feel on firmer ground in Lebanon, a former French protectorate. In an interview, Macron said if France did not play its part, “other powers may interfere whether it be Iran, Saudi Arabia or Turkey.”
He need not worry about competition, though. No other world leader is auditioning for the role of Beirut’s savior. France could, if Macron were so minded, bail out Lebanon’s stricken economy by itself. Then he wouldn’t have to deal with an ornery Trump or an obstinate Erdogan — or even an overcautious Angela Merkel.
But he would have to reckon with Lebanon’s obstreperous politicians, who are averse to any political and economic reforms that might whittle away their privileges, such as the freedom to loot the state’s resources. Macron said the country needed a “new political initiative.” It will take rather more than finger-wagging to keep those “corrupt hands” from the till. The president will have to knock some heads together, as well.
And the hardest head belongs to Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s obdurate leader. He is the reason most world leaders have been leery of involving themselves in Lebanon’s economic crisis. Iran-backed Hezbollah has its tentacles in almost every aspect of the Lebanese state — including the Beirut port, where the blasts took place — and a powerful militia with which to protect its interests.
In his press conference, Macron called on Hezbollah to back reforms and think of Lebanon’s interest rather those of Iran. But that would require Nasrallah to change the habit of a lifetime.
And then, there are the Lebanese people. Traumatized by their latest tragedy and desperate for change, they will cling to Macron’s promises and want to see action before his Sept 1 return to Beirut. If he fails to deliver, the streets of Gemmayzeh may not be so welcoming the second time around.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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