No more dramatic a vision of our returning age of empires can be imagined than the spectacle, yesterday, of President Macron’s triumphal tour of a devastated Beirut. As desperate Lebanese pressed around him, calling for the overthrow of their own rulers, and even pleading for the return of the French mandate, Europe’s most important statesman seized the moment, hugging crying women — in a city where Lebanon’s leaders would be lynched, if they attempted the same itinerary — and assuring the crowd that he would propose a new constitutional settlement for the country, brought to the brink of collapse by corruption.
Whether or not it is in the capacity of any European power to fix the country’s many problems remains to be seen. Since independence from France in 1943, Lebanon’s combustible mix of religious groups jostled together within the same borders has hampered any prospect of stable governance. The power-sharing arrangement imposed at the end of the country’s 15-year long civil war has had the unintended consequence of enabling kleptocratic mismanagement by ethnic and sectarian warlords.
But then, perhaps France and Europe have no other choice than to engage with the country’s problems before Lebanon slides into civil war once again. Europe left the problem of Syria to the regional powers of Iran and Russia, the Gulf kingdoms and Turkey, with the tragic and destabilising consequences we see now. Hundreds of French civilians have been slaughtered over the past 5 years by fellow citizens with no prior connection to Syria but who were nevertheless inspired by the jihadist groups feeding parasitically on the country’s chaos. The refugee waves that followed both Syria’s collapse and that of Libya have also upended European politics, with Macron representing the bulwark of the continent’s centre-right against populist challengers. With his new Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin darkly warning recently of the risk of civil conflict at home in France, the necessity of forestalling yet another civil war in France’s near abroad seems clear.
It’s ironic that Macron can walk more freely in Beirut than he can in his own capital. The Gilets Jaunes revolt which threatened to unseat his rule may have dampened, for now, but as the most significant and sustained bout of violent protest in Western Europe for many decades, it highlights that his reign is not fully secure. Nevertheless, on the back of his stunningly successful EU recovery deal and of France’s growing role as a major strategic power in the Eastern Mediterranean for the first time since the Second World War, ‘Jupiter’ is clearly in the ascendant.
His performance in Beirut’s devastated streets yesterday was a powerful statement of the return of the grand, symbolic factor in European politics after decades of, essentially, rule by uninspired, ageing HR managers. It’s worth revisiting Macron’s 2017 interview with Der Speigel, where he set out his philosophy of governance:
What happens over the next few months and years, in Lebanon now as well as France, will reveal the viability or not of Macron’s historic vision.