August 11, 2020

Imagine Boris Johnson had visited a former British colony still jangling after a terrible and humiliating disaster, and told its people that he was giving their government three weeks to clean up its act, or else. That is precisely what the French leader did in Beirut last Thursday. His intervention effectively ensured the collapse of the Lebanese government last night.

The comparison is disappointingly abstract because there is no former British colony that is remotely similar to Lebanon. The bond that Britain has with Malta or Cyprus or Israel has nothing on what many French people feel for Lebanon, a country they ruled briefly between 1919 and 1946, but with which they share history going back to the crusades. The Ottomans recognised France’s ongoing interest in the region in the sixteenth century: it was as the protector of Christians in the region that the French came to the aid of the Maronite Christians during the massacres of 1860. The numerous French religious institutions in the region ran schools, which were enormously popular with ambitious locals. At Baalbek, the country’s most famous ancient site, there is old chalk graffiti done by long-gone Lebanese. The names are Arab, the handwriting distinctively French.

When I saw the footage of Macron being mobbed by beleaguered Beirutis, my instinct was to assume that some cunning strategic rationale underpinned his move. Since the collapse of the Iranian nuclear deal, the French president has been trying to position his country as Iran’s obvious intermediary. I wondered initially whether this explained his seemingly reflexive decision to swoop in, given how Hezbollah, the strongest political force in Lebanon, could provide another conduit to Teheran.

The reality is simpler. Macron is genuinely interested by Lebanon – he visited during his presidential campaign in 2017 and I know he enjoyed reading at least one book about the recent history of the region last summer (it was mine). When Macron went to Beirut to electioneer, the French ambassador at the time was Emmanuel Bonne. Debonair, thoughtful and hawkish, Bonne is now chief foreign policy adviser at the Elysée. Macron’s confidence stems in part from the fact that his conseiller diplomatique will have the numbers of all the key people in Lebanon on his phone.

Macron’s willingness to weaponise the history he knows became abundantly clear during his walkabout in Gemmayzeh, an area which was the social epicentre of the city until it was smashed by last week’s explosion, and where no member of the Lebanese government would currently dare tread, such is the degree of anger. There he said (in French) that he would be proposing a new “political pact” to members of the country’s political elite that very afternoon, and that he would be coming back on 1 September.

There is an enormous symbolism to the date and the word “pact” that will have passed most people by. September 1 2020 is the centenary of France’s establishment of Greater Lebanon as a discrete state separate from Syria, which it had been mandated to govern by the League of Nations six months earlier. The new state joined Mount Lebanon, which was (and is) predominantly Christian and Druze, to adjacent coastal and interior areas where most of the inhabitants are Sunni or Shia. Its proclamation was made by France’s first high commissioner to Lebanon from the steps of his official residence, La Résidence des Pins: it was a bone thrown very publicly to the Christians on whom French power would depend.

Successive French High Commissioners governed the Levant from the Residence for the next quarter of a century and the French saw no need to give up this piece of real estate even after Lebanon gained its independence. Now home to the French ambassador, it is the very place to which Macron summoned Lebanese politicians to talk about the future last week.
Five years after the French high commissioner brought Greater Lebanon into being, a revolt against French rule erupted in Syria, next-door. In 1926, in an attempt to stop the rot penetrating their bridgehead, the French granted Lebanon a constitution modelled on their own. This gave each of the main religious groups one of the top jobs: the president would be Christian, his prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker in parliament a Shia. This, and the allocation of seats in parliament, institutionalised Christian dominance. Power remained in the French high commissioner’s hands.

The reason why Macron’s deliberate use of the word “pact” will be so resonant is because of events that happened two decades later, during the second world war. In 1943, following significant British pressure, the French were forced to hold elections in Lebanon, which resulted in a nationalist triumph and de facto independence. The “National Pact” reached by the new president and his prime minister afterwards confirmed the confessional arrangements of 1926. The deal was that the Christians would no longer seek western support; the Sunnis gave up their dream of reuniting Lebanon with Syria. When both sides abandoned the agreement in the late 1950s, the result was a short civil war. What Macron is proposing is that a new government reopens, rewrites and then reseals this pact in time for the centenary next month. Given how many months it took to form the last administration, this is a very tall order.

In normal times, such casual interference in domestic politics by another country’s head of state would be extraordinary, but Lebanon is in dire straits. Coming on top of strikes, power-cuts and a banking crisis, the explosion is a symptom of the rotten state’s collapse. Significantly, it has devastated the lives of well-off Beirutis who have so far managed to insulate themselves from other aspects of the crisis. A friend I rely on as a barometer for the mood in the city described “living like you’re an animal” — in the sense of not really understanding what is happening around you. What she wanted to know most was whether there is a willingness in the West to help.

Anthony Elghossain, who is writing a book about Western policy in the Levant since the 1950s, and whose own flat in the city was wrecked by the blast, believes that the West needs to be careful that the support it does offer does not simply entrench the oligarchy responsible for the chaos. In his view “friends of Lebanon and its diaspora need to crowdsource and explore alternative ways of working through international and domestic organisations to help Lebanon rebuild”. That task is urgent because the different factions are already clearly trying to exploit the situation: by the weekend, medicines donated by Kuwait were reportedly already on sale in Beirut pharmacies.

Lebanon has long relied on foreign friends, but Macron’s tone last week suggests that the patience of one of its strongest champions is now running out. Elghossain hopes that his compatriots will finally confront the fact that there is a direct correlation between Hezbollah’s power and the outside world’s growing reluctance to help. “All Lebanon’s political parties are passively complicit and actively criminal,” he says. “All are problematic but some are more problematic than others. Hezbollah is the most powerful party; it is also the most problematic party on the international plane.”

Tackling Hezbollah is easier said than done. This deeply disturbing terrorist organisation serves the senescent president, Michel Aoun, like a Zimmer frame and its existence suits many other members of the country’s self-serving elite, if only to frighten people into supporting them. Lebanon is caught in a vicious circle: its corrupted politics have caused a crisis which means three-quarters of all Lebanese are now thought to live in poverty. In such a situation the patronage and protection their politicians offer them have an ongoing, if battered, allure. Moreover, other Arab states will be doing what they can to prevent the Lebanese government being ousted in a popular revolution, which might give their own citizens ideas.

Macron’s determination to muster an international coalition has a precedent. In 1861, following the sectarian killings of the previous year, the Ottomans gave the Christian Maronites a degree of autonomy. To reassure the Maronites, the Règlement Organique – as it was misleadingly known, since it was the result of intense western pressure – was guaranteed by the five European powers: Britain, France, Austria, Russia and Prussia. Is Macron thinking of something of this kind to break the ruinous cycle Lebanon is in?

What are the chances of success? There is no question many Lebanese are desperate for profound change. Macron received a tumultuous reception. But the worst-hit areas, where he conducted his walkabout last week, are in the Christian east of the city, where he might expect plenty of goodwill. The big question is how Hezbollah — whose representatives attended last week’s discussions — will respond to the greatest threat to the power it has accumulated since fighting off the Israelis in 2006. “[A]ll of Hezbollah’s resources are at the disposal of the Lebanese state,” its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said tellingly in a defensive speech last Friday, in which he accused others of blaming the group, which controls the port, reflexively for the disaster. His tone suggests that he knows he’s vulnerable.

As the 1943 pact demonstrates, Lebanon’s politicians have always had to navigate low levels of trust between the people they are supposed to represent. It is no longer working. Give it too hard a shake, however, and there’s a real danger that the entire country explodes.