French FM delivers tough message to Lebanese leaders

The French minister did not speak to reporters after meeting Aoun, Berri or Hariri

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends a working session during the Foreign ministers of G7 nations meeting in Dinard, France, April 6, 2019. Image used for illustrative purpose

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends a working session during the Foreign ministers of G7 nations meeting in Dinard, France, April 6, 2019. Image used for illustrative purpose

REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/Pool

BEIRUT: France's foreign minister delivered a tough message to Lebanese leaders during a one-day visit to Beirut Thursday, that Paris was fed up with the country's political class that has failed to form a new government necessary to halt economic collapse.

Jean-Yves Le Drian met President Michel Aoun for around 45 minutes at Baabda Palace before heading to Beirut where he met Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at his residence in Ain al-Tineh for 30 minutes.

During the night, Le Drian held talks with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at Pines Palace in Beirut in a previously unannounced meeting.

The meeting took place after Hariri indicated earlier this week that he was ready to step down if he could not form a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no side holding veto power.

The French minister did not speak to reporters after meeting Aoun, Berri or Hariri.

A presidential statement said Aoun stressed to the French foreign minister that forming a new government was his top priority. "[Aoun] said that he would continue to exert efforts to reach practical results despite internal and external hurdles and the lack of commitment from those concerned to following constitutional norms and set methodology in forming governments," the statement said.

Aoun also explained to Le Drian his constitutional responsibility to preserve the political and sectarian balance during the government formation process, the statement said. The president renewed his pledge to implement reforms starting with forensic auditing of Central Bank accounts and asked France and Europe to help Lebanon retrieve the billions of dollars in funds that had been smuggled outside the country.

Two diplomats said Le Drian wanted to send a clear message that Paris supports the Lebanese people, but that it had had enough of the political class that had failed to meet its commitments.

"He came to Beirut to give Lebanese officials a strongly worded message, to tell them 'Lebanon is sinking and you are the ones sinking it even more ... And if you don't help yourselves, nobody can help you,'" a senior Lebanese political source told Reuters.

Le Drian, in tweets Wednesday night, said his visit to Lebanon was aimed at asserting France’s support for the Lebanese, who are reeling under the worst economic and financial crisis in decades.

“I will be in Lebanon tomorrow with a strongly worded message to politicians and a message expressing our full solidarity with the Lebanese,” Le Drian wrote.

“We will deal firmly with those obstructing the government formation. We have taken national measures. This is just the beginning. My visit also confirms France’s solidarity in the field of teaching, medicine and antiquities and its support for the Lebanese who are exerting their utmost efforts for the sake of their country,” he added.

Le Drian’s visit to Beirut aims to revive the stalled French initiative and accelerate the formation of a new government to enact reforms deemed essential to unlocking promised international aid.

Le Drian's talks with Lebanese leaders will center on how to break the stalemate that for more than eight months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to cope with a series of crises, including the economic meltdown that is threatening the Lebanese with hunger and poverty.

Le Drian’s failure to achieve any major breakthrough in the Cabinet crisis has raised fears that Hariri might step down in protest at the continued obstruction by Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement of his attempts to form a government of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative.

Politicians and analysts warned that if Hariri was pushed to step aside under the brunt of tough conditions by Aoun and his son-in-law, FPM head MP Gebran Bassil, including their insistence on gaining a blocking one-third [veto power] in the new government, the premier-designate’s dramatic move would throw Lebanon into further political and economic turmoil with all the grave consequences this entails for a country reeling from multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn.

LeBrian later met opposition groups, suggesting increased interest in alternatives to a ruling class that has failed to form a government for nine months despite the country's economic stagnation.

He also visited several health, education and heritage projets supported by France but he also met a group of opposition members.

"Representatives of the parties opposed to the current political class spoke as one," said Naji Abou Khalil, a member of the National Bloc's executive committee.

He said the main demands put forward by the opposition were for the formation of an independent government of experts to handle the crisis and for elections to be organised in the spring of 2022.

The groups represented at Thursday's meeting have strived to overcome their differences and present a united front to mount a serious challenge to Lebanon's hereditary political barons.

Abou Khalil argued that the meeting was a sign the international community was taking them more seriously as a political alternative and not just representatives of civil society.

"A year and a half ago, the international community was still reluctant to demand the removal of the ruling class lest it create instability," he told AFP.

"Now it is starting to understand that the continued presence of this political class is where the danger comes from for Lebanon, not from its removal," he said.

"For the opposition, this visit opens a door towards more international legitimacy."

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