French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian paid a two-day visit (July 23-24, 2020) in Lebanon aimed at pressing Beirut to implement long-overdue reforms and dissociate from regional conflicts, both seen as key to unlocking international aid.
At the end of his visit to Lebanon, Le Drian announced more than €15 million (Dh64m) in aid for schools after delivering a firm message to the country’s leaders: they will see no economic assistance without implementing long-delayed reforms to increase transparency and fight corruption.
“In total, nearly €15 million are now at the disposal of the Lebanese education sector, which is equivalent to one-tenth of the financial commitments that we implemented in the entire world,” he said.
“In parallel, €2m have been rallied for Christian schools in the region, and because of their importance, a large part of this sum will go to those of Lebanon.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said Lebanese politicians are preventing the disbursal of much-needed aid to the crisis-hit country by failing to implement solutions “that have already been known for a long time”.
“France is ready to fully mobilize alongside Lebanon and to mobilize all of its partners, but this requires serious and credible reform measures to be implemented. Concrete actions are long-overdue,” Le Drian said during a joint news conference with Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti on July 23.
Little progress was made and Lebanon is now sinking into a deep crisis characterized by currency depreciation, steep inflation, rising poverty, unemployment, and growing instability.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a half from international donors rallied by France.
But the government has faltered with little popular support and negotiations with the IMF have been impeded by disagreements and political bickering.
Protesters “took to the streets to mark the thirst for change, to mark the desire for transparency, the fight against corruption, and better governance of a whole people. Unfortunately, this appeal has so far not been heard,” Le Drian said.
Topping the list of France’s demands – which Le Drian noted: “are primarily those of the Lebanese” – are four measures: The resumption negotiations with the IMF – put on hold earlier this month due to a lack of unity on the Lebanese side; an audit of the Central Bank’s accounts; a law organizing capital controls and reform to the country’s crippled electricity sector, which has bled some $47bn since the early 1990s.
Similar words were echoed by French Ambassador Bruno Foucher in a tweet: “France will act if Lebanon acts! There is nothing more to say.”
Sporting a face-mask bearing both the French and Lebanese flags, Le Drian visited Lebanese leaders, including President Michel Aoun, House Speaker Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
Diab noted a number of reforms by the government, including steps to combat cross-border smuggling with Syria with the installation of scanners, and the cabinet’s approval earlier this week of a forensic audit for the central bank’s accounts.
He also raised the issue of the presence of more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whose cabinet recently endorsed a plan to return refugees to Syria. A number of prominent politicians have long blamed their presence for many of the country’s issues, despite most of those issues pre-existing the influx of refugees in 2011.
Far from carrying a credit line or new aid package, Le Drian announced that humanitarian assistance to Lebanon would amount to 50 million euros ($58m) for the year 2020, including support for public services like healthcare. But it was up to Lebanese authorities “to put in place social safety nets … which do not yet exist”.
He said France would also roll out support to families of 1,000 children who study at 52 French-speaking schools in the country. Private schools in Lebanon are facing a severe crisis as the economic collapse pushes families to enroll their children in cheaper public schools.
France’s top diplomat also promised to continue aid to the Lebanese army, “the backbone of this state, and the security forces as a whole, which play a crucial role in ensuring the stability and security of the country.”
In May, Diab’s government began talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $10bn programme. It is seeking an additional $11bn in aid from the international community over the next five years to stave off the effects of the crisis.
France has long acted as Lebanon’s gateway to the international community, organizing four donor conferences in Paris over the past two decades that brought together dozens of nations and international financial institutions.
Pledges at those conferences total nearly $24bn, of which $11bn were committed at the CEDRE conference two years ago.
Lebanon has been a special case for France as the last remaining foothold of its colonial past in the Middle East, and many in Lebanon see France as the country’s “compassionate mother”.
But even France’s rhetoric has begun to change. “Help us so we can help you, damn it!” Le Drian exclaimed during a discussion about Lebanon during a session of the French parliament earlier this month.
The generous aid that Lebanon received in the past was always accompanied by pledges by successive governments to implement deep reforms and enhance revenue-creating measures.
These included privatization of the telecoms and electricity sectors, tax hikes, cuts to subsidies, debt reduction, and modernizing the country’s aged legal framework – much of which dates back to France’s occupation of the country from 1920 to 1943.
But little was done over the last two decades. Lebanon’s public debt surged from about 25 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2001, when the first Paris conference was held, to about 150 percent of GDP when CEDRE was held in 2018.
This article was edited using the data from the Aljazeera.com, Thenational.ae, and Fr24news.com