French President enjoyed his hero’s welcome in the Lebanese capital last week, but critics now wonder if it was an opportunistic visit by Macron?
The ground shook in the Eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday evening when Beirut was rocked by a massive explosion. The explosion has devastated the Lebanese capital.
In the midst of collective shock and severe human loss, French President Emmanuel Macron rushed to Lebanon. The circumstances surrounding his visit displayed a colonial nostalgia.
More than 150 people were killed, over 5,000 have been wounded and hundreds of thousands have lost their homes – particularly in the Eastern parts of the city. Many people remain missing.
Not much is known about the cause, and authorities continue to investigate. It is assumed that 2,700 thousand tons of ammonium nitrate were stored at the port and caught fire.
US President Donald Trump immediately alleged that the explosion had been due to a bomb attack. On August 7, Lebanese President Michel Aoun stated that negligence, but also external action through a missile or bomb, could have been the cause. The catastrophe comes in the midst of an already grave situation in Lebanon.
The country is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, manifest in hyperinflation and job losses. Numerous companies, institutions, restaurants, and cafés have been forced to close in the past few months, while many Lebanese people are falling below the poverty line.
The Covid19 pandemic has accelerated the economic deterioration. As Lebanon highly depends on imports, the destruction of the port might have a further significant impact.
As so often, the Lebanese have shown their resilience, as people swiftly organised themselves to rush and help those affected, standing in queues in front of hospitals to donate blood. Proclamations of solidarity arrived from different parts of the world.
French President Emmanuel Macron was the first foreign official to arrive in Beirut on August 6. Besides empathy and aid, Macron also brought a political message. Indeed, the tragedy of Beirut seemed like an opportunity for the French president. Some Lebanese received Macron like a hero.
In a moment of shock, insecurity and widespread mistrust towards the political elite, Macron seemed to enjoy the role of saviour, walking confidently through one of Beirut’s now destroyed quarters, conversing with survivors.
While his warm welcome can be understood as a protest against the Lebanese political elite, it also revealed the survival of colonial mentality. There are indeed some people in Lebanon who enjoy flirting with the idea of being ruled by France.
Longing for the period of the French Mandate - that most only know from stories and pictures - French rule, for some at least, symbolises a solution. It also represents an inclusion into the Western world and a distancing from Western Asia.
A petition calling for a French re-colonisation of Lebanon has gone viral, swiftly receiving tens of thousands of signatures. Others, elsewhere, protested against Macron. A group of demonstrators confronted the French president and demanded the release of Lebanese political prisoner, Georges Abdallah, who has been in a French jail since 1984.
Although Abdallah was granted parole in 2013, France has refused to release him due to U.S. pressure. Some locals cried out for answers; directing his gaze at one citizen, the President replied: “I am here today. I will propose a new political pact, this afternoon.”
Just why would he think that he has the capacity or authority to initiate a “political pact”?
The question is particularly important, as many of the current structural problems in the country date back to the era of the French Mandate, when the French colonised both Lebanon and Syria.
Patronisingly, Macron went on to promise support through a speech.
Addressing in particular younger audiences, Macron announced direct support to NGOs and an investment of 15 million Euros into French-language schools. Macron’s condition for more support is political reforms.
He said that the Lebanese government “has no faith from its people” and called on the country’s politicians to act, take responsibility and rebuild trust, confidence and hope. Lebanon required “fundamental change” that needed to be done within an “international framework,” he said.
Macron called for “a new political order.” Towards the end of the speech, he claimed: “It is not up to me or to France to tell Lebanese leaders what they have to do and how they should do it.” Still, Macron demanded change in the coming weeks. “I need clear answers” he stressed and announced he would return on September 1.
While corruption within subsequent governments and among the political elite has contributed to the current situation, the Lebanese government is not solely responsible for the ongoing crises.
There are US-imposed sanctions against the country, as well as on neighbouring Syria - these have facilitated a deterioration of the economy. Western powers, which includes the United States and France, have supported corrupt political dynamics.
While Macron is presenting himself as the benevolent saviour who will help the troubled Lebanese, he himself has been complicit in exactly what some of the protesters referred to when they cursed corruption. Ironically, in Beirut, Macron scrutinised “a political order that has been captured by outside forces."
He obviously did not mean France and its allies – such as Israel. France has a particularly close relation with the Israeli regime, with which Lebanon has been in an ongoing state of war for decades. Like his predecessors, Macron naturally supports Israel’s supremacy in the region.
The structural Israeli aggression plays a particular role in Lebanon’s grave situation. For decades, Israel has been a destructive force in Lebanon. It had a devastating role in the Lebanese War, occupying a significant part of the country for almost two decades, carrying out massacres, and again bombarding the country in the 2006 war.
No French high official went to Dahiye, south of Beirut, after it was destroyed by Israeli bombs. Also, Israel is still invested in destabilising Lebanon. Israeli warplanes and drones can be seen over Lebanese skies almost on a daily basis, these are in violation of Lebanese sovereignty.
Neither these actions, nor continuous Israeli threats have caused outrage in France or the broader international community.
Israeli provocations are also rarely registered by the many Western journalists present in Beirut. For Macron, the trip to Beirut might have been a refreshing contrast to the situation in Paris, where recent years mass protests - largely against his own government - have been a mainstay of French life. Police violence is said to be on the rise there.
Jan Kubis, a Slovak diplomat who is currently serving as the UN “Special Coordinator for Lebanon” also seems to think that Macron has authority over Lebanon. Kubis tweeted: “The messages from President Emmanuel Macron were clear and loud. What now, Lebanon?
The fact that many in the country are tired and some solely blame internal factors for the current crises, seems to suit foreign powers who appear eager to extend their own personal grip on Lebanon.
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