Beirut Blast: France’s Macron Visits Lebanon Promising Aid Yet Urging Reform

France’s President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Lebanon on Thursday with a message of solidarity for a country reeling from a devastating explosion, but warned that the country must reform its corrupt ways.

Macron said he wants to quickly organize a conference to raise funds for the former French protectorate, while pointedly noting that international assistance “will go directly to the people of Lebanon.” Potential donors are concerned that assistance could either be siphoned off by a corrupt ruling class that has brought the country to the brink of economic ruin, or be funneled to Hezbollah militants.

The French president is the first international leader to arrive in Beirut since a vast consignment of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port ignited on Tuesday, killing at least 135 people, wounding thousands more and leaving a trail of destruction stretching for miles. Lebanese customs authorities had warned long ago against keeping such flammable material there.

“I wish to help organize international aid,” Macron said after landing at Beirut’s airport, noting that “beyond the explosion the crisis is grave.”

“This visit is the opportunity to have a frank dialogue and be demanding towards Lebanese political forces and institutions,” he said. Reforms including the fight against corruption are “indispensable,” he added, and if they aren’t carried out, “Lebanon will continue sinking.”

Global aid, he added, would be channeled through non-governmental organizations “so that it goes to the right place as fast as possible.”

The explosion came atop Lebanon’s worst financial crisis in decades, fueled by the failure of the divided Lebanese government to implement reforms demanded by the international community to unlock billions of dollars in aid. Lebanon is now appealing for additional international help as concerns mount over shortages in a nation that depends heavily on imports.

The explosion severely damaged food stocks and hundreds of homes and buildings in a once-bustling commercial and residential area. Thousands have been injured and about 300,000 people are now homeless, Beirut’s governor said. Damage is estimated at up to $5 billion — money Lebanon doesn’t have.

The country is in the throes of a severe financial meltdown after decades of mismanagement and corruption left it with financial losses triple the size of its economy. The currency has lost nearly 80% and inflation has soared, touching off widespread unemployment and poverty.

France and Lebanon retain close relations despite years of colonial rule. Lebanese Foreign Affairs Minister Charbel Wehbe welcomed Macron’s visit, saying Thursday on French Europe 1 Radio that “every time Lebanon suffers, France bleeds. Every time France suffers, Lebanon cries.”

Yet France has so far failed to leverage those historic and cultural ties to incentivize the country’s government to reform. Only a day before the explosion, Lebanon’s foreign minister quit, warning the country is slipping into becoming a failed state.

In the absence of change, and with Iran-backed Hezbollah classified by Gulf states and the U.S. as a terrorist group, donors have been reluctant to provide budgetary support. Talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $10 billion loan program have stalled.

Last month, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian caused a stir by telling Lebanese politicians they were preventing the disbursal of aid by failing to implement solutions that have already been known for a long time. “Help yourself and France and its partners will help you,” he said.
On Thursday, Wehbe suggested that point was made.

“The only condition France has asked for, in a very friendly way, is to start the reforms,” he said. “We must carry out our reforms.”

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