The French Initiative in Lebanon: Endgame and Challenges

French President Emmanuel Macron has been leading a charm offensive in Lebanon since the August 4th Beirut explosion as Paris seeks to reinvigorate its role in the eastern Mediterranean. Macron’s initiative is raising questions about the form, substance, and effectiveness of this revived French influence in Lebanon, given the US-Iranian rivalry that has typically set the tone of Lebanese politics in the past decade.

Macron visited Beirut twice since the blast, first on August 6 and second on August 31, and has already announced plans to return in December. On his second visit, he gave Lebanese leaders a time frame of 15 days to form a new government to replace the caretaker government of Hassan Diab. Macron also spearheaded an international video conference on August 9 that pledged $300 million to help Beirut recover from the explosion. In addition, French officials announced their intention to organize two Lebanon-related conferences in October, the first on reconstruction aid and the second, in Paris, to build international support for the reform agenda in Lebanon. All these plans might fail if the government is not formed or Lebanon’s political crisis deepens.

Moreover, the French ambassador to Lebanon, Bruno Foucher, reportedly delivered to Lebanese leaders a two-page “concept paper” meant to be a road map for the country. It included auditing the Central Bank and the state’s finances, swiftly forming a government capable of reforms, concluding an impartial investigation of the Beirut explosion, and holding an early parliamentary election. French authorities are suggesting that these steps are crucial for unlocking foreign aid to Lebanon.

The French Initiative: Dimensions and Motivations

This impromptu French soft power approach has political, economic, and cultural dimensions. At the political level, Paris is using its ability to engage the major foreign powers competing in Lebanon by asking the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia not to disrupt this French-backed process, at a minimum. Macron has asked Lebanese leaders to put their differences aside and rally around a “government of technocrats.” He also presided over meetings with Lebanon’s ruling elites, which gave the false impression of a de facto French mandate over Lebanon.

Paris is using its ability to engage the major foreign powers competing in Lebanon by asking the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia not to disrupt this French-backed process, at a minimum.

At the economic level, France is focused on encouraging a Lebanese government able to manage emergency and reconstruction aid, reform the public sector, and negotiate with the International Monetary Fund. Moreover, Macron is highlighting the cultural affinity and historical ties between France and Lebanon; this was demonstrated by engaging protesters during his trip and, most notably, his visit to the home of the renowned Lebanese singer Fairouz. Macron’s second visit to Lebanon coincided with the centennial anniversary of “Greater Lebanon,” the name of the state announced by French mandatory authorities on September 1, 1920 and which constituted the base for declaring the Lebanese republic.

The motivation behind Macron’s initiative is complex. First, there is the domestic aspect that gives the French president an opportunity to shine on the world stage after a setback in his country’s municipal elections. Second, in the wake of a blow to French influence when the French navy failed to inspect a Turkish warship heading to Libya, Paris found an opportunity to reassert its role in the eastern Mediterranean through the Lebanese gate.

Most importantly, Paris—through the leading French global shipping group CMA CGM—is eyeing the contract to rebuild and run the Port of Beirut after the explosion. CMA CGM Lebanon already handles 29 percent of the traffic in Beirut’s port and 83 percent of Tripoli’s port in northern Lebanon. The chairman and CEO of CMA CGM, Rodolphe Saadé, who is of Lebanese origin, travelled to Beirut with Macron and tweeted1 on August 7 that his company is ready to “respond to the emergency and work toward the reconstruction of Beirut.”2 It is noteworthy that Ankara is competing with Paris and, on August 8, made a similar offer to rebuild the Port of Beirut during the visit of Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay to Lebanon.

Moreover, French authorities have an interest in restoring their investment in Lebanon’s mobile telephone industry after the two major operating licenses were brought under temporary control of the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications in May. One of the plans of the next government is to decide whether to keep control of the two cellular networks, Alfa and Touch, or relaunch the tender process and award contracts. Finally, the third and last major component of French investment interests is natural gas exploration. The French energy company Total is leading the international consortium that signed two Exploration and Production Agreements with the Lebanese government, covering Blocks 4 and 9 located offshore in Lebanon. This exploration process will also pick up pace after the Lebanese government is formed.

Challenges Facing the French Initiative

Hezbollah initially showed some flexibility toward the French initiative by conceding on three issues: the resignation of the Hassan Diab government, the formation of a government of technocrats, and the holding of an early election within a year. It is noteworthy that Macron invited Mohammad Raad to the meetings with Lebanese leaders; as the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, Raad was sanctioned by the United States in July 2019.

The French honeymoon began to fade as soon as the prime minister-designate, Mustafa Adib, delved into the actual details of forming the government. Unlike his predecessors, Adib moved forward in naming the cabinet without consulting with the major political groups that form the parliament. He also refused to give the finance ministry to the Amal Movement, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Since the Doha Agreement that ended an 18-month political crisis in Lebanon in 2008, the major political parties have selected their own ministers in the governments; this provided some political stability but also resulted in dysfunctional governance and corruption. Berri argues that a Sunni prime minister who unilaterally selects a cabinet is a move that constitutes a violation of the Doha Agreement; further, it contravenes the National Pact and the unwritten agreement that laid the foundation of Lebanon as a multi-confessional state. Berri also maintains that his ability to select a finance minister ensures the possibility of a Shia veto in signing and endorsing major decisions made by the Maronite president and Sunni premier.

The influence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Adib seems critical, as Hariri hopes to achieve, through Adib, what he was not able to accomplish previously as prime minister in the government formation process.

Meanwhile, Adib and the Sunni former prime ministers who selected him kept their cards close to their chests without leaking information or consulting on the cabinet choices, arguing that this is a constitutional prerogative of the prime minister. The influence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Adib seems critical, as Hariri hopes to achieve, through Adib, what he was not able to accomplish previously as prime minister in the government formation process. Hence, Adib seems to be a product of the Lebanese political class that is now settling scores, all under new rules of engagement set by France.

President Michel Aoun dispatched the general director of Lebanon’s General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, to Paris, where he met Bernard Émié, the director of the General Directorate for External Security and former French ambassador to Lebanon. The aim was to see if French officials could help in overcoming the impasse. In response, President Macron called Berri to sway his views, but the latter became even more adamant—in defiance of Washington.

It is clear that Berri was reacting to a decision in Washington on September 8, when the Trump Administration weighed in on Lebanese politics by sanctioning two former Lebanese ministers (Ali Hassan Khalil, representing the Amal Movement, and Youssef Fenianos, representing Maronite leader Suleiman Frangieh). Both are close Hezbollah allies and Khalil is a close aide to Berri. The sanctions were timed halfway in the French deadline for Lebanese leaders to form a government and seemed to present a double-edged message to Berri: to be more flexible in the border demarcation talks with Israel while standing down in the government formation process. Evidently, the sanctions also were a message to Hariri to keep a distance from Hezbollah, since Khalil and Fenianos are regular messengers between Hariri and Hezbollah. Berri could have potentially become a burden on Hezbollah after the Beirut explosion, but now his star is rising again in Hezbollah’s orbit after the US sanctions.

Washington initially publicly distanced itself from the French initiative as was evident in a statement3 by the US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, saying that “the French proposal concerns the French alone.” The United States is now adding items to the French initiative by pushing to conclude the border demarcation issue with Israel within weeks, potentially as a requirement to unlock foreign aid, and by making Hezbollah a central issue in the French initiative. This was made evident by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who noted from Paris that Hezbollah  could torpedo Macron’s efforts in Lebanon.

As expected, the US approach made the Iranian regime and Hezbollah less flexible with the French initiative. Berri has now added one new demand4of having the third blocking vote in the government, as Hezbollah sees an emboldened US role in Lebanese politics with the potential Adib government. Tehran is also watching the Emirati and Bahraini normalization deals with Israel and wondering if this emerging alliance could also seek to have Lebanon join as well, or at least push for a neutral foreign policy in Beirut. The French initiative is now facing its biggest challenge and the credibility of Macron is on the line because of the political capital he has personally invested in Lebanon.

The French initiative is now facing its biggest challenge and the credibility of Macron is on the line because of the political capital he has personally invested in Lebanon.

The US sanctions came after Macron forcefully denied the threat of sanctions against Lebanese leaders who resist reform, which raised questions regarding whether this US move is meant to advance or disrupt the French initiative. It might do both. The Trump Administration is sensing some French leniency in dealing with Hezbollah and the sanctions seem to ensure that the initiative will be strictly executed.

While there are common objectives between Paris and Washington, there are policy differences over priorities and tactics. French authorities are rather focused on issues of governance, investments, and gaining influence in Lebanon while US leaders have priorities linked to deterring Hezbollah (as part of the maximum pressure policy on Iran), the demarcation of the Lebanese/Israel maritime border, and making sure Lebanon does not open up to the Syrian regime and stays relatively neutral in foreign policy. In the larger strategic context, there is also a contrast of priorities with Washington focusing on Iran while Paris is increasingly focused on deterring Turkey.

The Iranian regime is confronting a conundrum: it cannot pay for or subsidize the fiscal and economic collapse in Lebanon, but it also cannot have the United States run over Hezbollah politically. Hence Tehran prefers to be on board, shaping the new dynamics in Lebanese politics instead of being in an isolationist and confrontational mode. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia did not give a green light for Saad Hariri’s return as Prime Minister and seems indifferent about what is happening in Lebanon. Riyadh’s mindset is that nothing can be done if Hezbollah is in control, which makes it closer to the US approach.

Potential Scenarios Moving Forward

Given the continuing tensions between Washington and Tehran, and after the Beirut explosion, Paris offered to serve as an acceptable regulator of the Lebanese political order. However, the French role largely depends on the cooperation of both the United States and Iran.

The crucial question in Lebanese politics is whether President Aoun, who is distancing himself from Hezbollah, will sign off on the Adib government if submitted, or if Adib might first withdraw his nomination and reset the French initiative. Further, if the Lebanese president does sign off on the Adib government under pressure, will Hezbollah and its allies give a confidence vote in the parliament? Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem said his party will not let US sanctions negatively impact the French initiative5 while Hezbollah is reportedly considering withdrawal from Syria as an apparent nod to Paris. However, any larger regional breakthrough, if it happens, will most likely wait for the US election in November to see if Trump will stay in office. The American presidential election could be a double-edged sword: the Trump Administration’s distraction with domestic politics could benefit French officials in leading on Lebanon, but it could also mean that the United States is not involved enough to push forward the French initiative until the end of the year. The Trump administration is now increasing pressure on Hezbollah and its allies to allow the formation of the government within the French-led process and reach a demarcation agreement with Israel. There are also indications that Washington might be flexible as to trade this demarcation deal with more US flexibility on the cabinet formation.

So far, the United States and Iran are neither fully endorsing nor disrupting the French initiative; rather, they are battling on the details within the intricacies of Lebanese politics. 

So far, the United States and Iran are neither fully endorsing nor disrupting the French initiative; rather, they are battling on the details within the intricacies of Lebanese politics. A deal to form a government could materialize after both sides conclude their grandstanding and their attempts to improve the terms of negotiations. This certainly does not mean the end of Lebanon’s woes, however. The current Lebanese political system has no mechanism to resolve disputes and will continue to produce tensions and corruption unless it undergoes significant reforms.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in French.
2 Author’s translation from French.
3 Source is in Arabic.
4 Source is in Arabic.
5 Source is in French.