Critics have denounced the overtures as a neocolonialist foray by a European leader seeking to restore power to a troubled land in the Middle East – and distract attention from growing problems at home. A meme circulating online dubbed him Macron Bonaparte, a 21st century Emperor Napoleon.
But Macron’s supporters – including desperate Beirut residents who called him “our only hope” – praised him for visiting devastated neighborhoods where Lebanese leaders fear walking and for trying to hold Lebanese politicians down for responsible for corruption and mismanagement blamed on Tuesday’s deadly explosion.
Macron’s visit revealed France’s central challenge as it prepares to host an international donors’ conference for Lebanon on Sunday: how to help a country in crisis, where French economic relations run deep, without interfering in its affairs interior.
“We are walking on the edge of a precipice. We have to help, support and encourage the Lebanese people, but at the same time not give the impression that we want to establish a new protectorate, which would be completely stupid, ”said Jack Lang, a former minister in the French government who now heads the Institut du monde arabe in Paris. “We need to find smart new solutions to help the Lebanese.”
France’s ties to Lebanon date back at least to the 16th century, when the French monarchy negotiated with the Ottoman rulers to protect Christians – and ensure their influence – in the region. By the time of the French mandate of 1920-1946, Lebanon already had a network of French and Francophone schools that survives to this day – as well as France’s warm relations with Lebanese power intermediaries, some of whom are accused. to fuel its political and economic crisis.
A startling online petition emerged this week calling on France to temporarily restore its mandate, claiming that Lebanese leaders have shown “complete inability to secure and run the country.”
It’s widely seen as an absurd idea – Macron himself told Beirut residents on Wednesday that “it’s up to you to write your story” – but 60,000 people have signed it, including members of the Lebanese diaspora, 250,000 strong, and Lebanese who said it was a way of expressing their desperation and mistrust of the political class.
Besides a show of much-needed international support, many Lebanese saw Macron’s visit as a way to secure financial aid for a country plagued by debt.
The French leader also managed to bring the divided political class together, albeit briefly. In a rare scene, the leaders of the Lebanese political factions – some of whom are still bitter enemies of the 1975-1990 civil war – appeared together at the Palais des Pins, the seat of the French embassy in Beirut, and took to each other. put away after meeting Macron.
But for many, the visit was seen as condescending. Some have attacked the petition and those who celebrate “France, the tender mother”.
A writer, Samer Frangieh, said Macron had rounded up politicians as “schoolchildren”, berating them for not performing their duties.
There have been other more subtle blows against France’s display of influence. As Macron visited neighborhoods torn by the explosion, the Hezbollah-backed government health minister visited field hospitals donated by Iran and Russia, the region’s main players.
“I get people who want the mandate. They have no hope, ”said Leah, an engineering student in Beirut who did not want her name published for fear of political repercussions. She spoke out firmly against the idea and against those who regard Macron as the “savior” of Lebanon.
She said it risked deepening divisions in Lebanon, as Maronite Christians and French-educated Muslims embraced Macron while others turned away. “He has not solved his problems with his country, with his people. How does he give us advice? she asked.
In Paris, Macron’s internal political opponents, from far left to far right, have warned the centrist leader against rampant neocolonialism and extracting political concessions from Lebanon in return for aid. “Solidarity with Lebanon must be unconditional,” tweeted Julien Bayou, leader of the popular party of the Greens.
Macron himself strongly rejected the idea of relaunching the French mandate.
“You cannot ask me to replace your leaders. It’s not possible, ”he says. “There is no French solution.”
But he was keen to note that he planned to return to Lebanon to verify that the promised reforms are underway on September 1, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of Greater Lebanon – and the start of French rule.