In the 16th century, the Catholic French monarchy secured a deal that aimed to provide protection for the Christian community under Ottoman rule, marking a paradigm shift that would open the floodgates of France’s ever-growing influence in the region. While today’s French maneuver in Lebanon may have been stripped of any religious significance, it was these long-established connections that drove the European power to claim the mandate for Lebanon when it was carving up with Britain the relics of what was once Ottoman territory.
For colonialist France, the land once part of the Islamic empire was reminiscent of the glory days of a once flourishing society influenced by Christian values.
Today, the nation is deeply ravaged by a catastrophic explosion that came on top of a slew of perennial problems including widespread poverty, rampant corruption and a political establishment largely based on patronage networks.
Standing amid rubble in Beirut, Emmanuel Macron hugged distraught Lebanese, pledging to rescue the nation out of its current quandary. His visit to the city was not a rare occurrence, but rather it echoed a continuous French approach to Lebanon. For years, France has been leading efforts to help lift the country out of an unraveling financial meltdown. Co-chairing the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISGL), it has helped secure a 11-billion-U.S.-dollar aid package that would provide substantial relief for Lebanon, though the package has not yet been delivered due to Beirut’s failure in carrying out a fiscal reform.
“As a former colonial power, France feels responsible for Lebanon,” Rami G. Khouri, senior public policy fellow at American University of Beirut, told CGTN.
Macron’s rescue campaign has moved many in the country. When he was reprimanding Lebanese officials for failing to carry out their duties, streets in Beirut saw crowds converge around the French president and praise for his actions.
But underneath all the benevolent, altruistic gestures are controversies surrounding Macron’s overtures. For some, his timely outreach has injected the nation with hope, while others see the move as yet another resemblance of foreign meddling that has long affected Lebanon.
“Like all other former colonial powers, France is acting in a neocolonial fashion,” said Khouri. “It wants to maintain influence in the region and it wants to make money out of the reconstruction process.”
Khouri said that he would not be surprised if there were French companies signing contracts with the Lebanese government for reconstruction purposes. “This has always been how neocolonialism works.”
Despite that, France’s “neocolonialist foray” does not seem to bother the swathes of dismayed Lebanese. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition asking France to restore the mandate it used to hold. From the public support that Macron enjoys to the absence of protesting on the part of government officials, it echoes across the country an acquiescence for French intervention.
While many years ago there were substantial variations in how different sectarian groups viewed France’s lingering influence, today it paints an entirely different picture, Zeina Nasser, a Lebanese activist and journalist, told CGTN.
Religious affiliations no longer dictate Lebanese’ take on the issue, said Nasser.
France’s imprint in Lebanon runs deep in the social sphere. About 200,000 Lebanese own a second home in France and French schools account for a significant proportion in Lebanon’s education sector. The majority of both private and public schools also use French as the first foreign language. “Most kids in these schools, Muslims and Christians alike, speak French before Arabic,” said Nasser. “Even in their homes, they don’t speak Arabic as much as French.”
“No one is concerned with how the French affect us,” she added.
Although there have been sporadic complaints about Macron’s patronizing approach, some politicians told media they feel relieved there is someone playing this role internally.
But despite the comfort that Lebanese have found in Macron’s zealous efforts, Nasser believes Lebanon’s nostalgic fervor is mainly fueled by longtime desperation, and should not be taken at face value.
As Lebanese have long been yearning for a comprehensive overhaul of the sectarian, quota-based political system that nourishes cronyism and patronage networks, their governments’ consistent failure to carry out the reform has led to growing frustration.
On the call for a return to the French mandate, Nasser said rather than saying it was out of their true aspirations, it was more of an enunciation of disenchantment, an outcry for help, “because their political leaders are not there for them.”
“All these grievances should lead to real actions, instead of letting the situation get out of our hands, such as demanding for a foreign intervention.”
France is not the only country that wields influence in Lebanon. Competing regional powers including Iran and Saudi Arabia have long had tangled ties with different political factions in the country, but the complexities that arise do not seem to have deterred Macron. He has been personally making calls to mediate between the rivaling power brokers and hoped to push for a government of national unity.
“The real question is who will come out on top,” Khouri said.
Some understanding between the major powers in Lebanon is required to make any kind of changes, he said, but noted that a total overhaul of the political system is unlikely.
“They will make some adjustments that are sufficient to respond to the demands of citizens who are living in a desperate situation, but they can drag this out for months, as they usually do,” said Khouri.
Reports have also indicated that Macron is mulling the possibility of bringing former prime minister Saad Hariri back for the PM office. The previous government led by Hariri included almost all sectarian factions. He resigned in January 2020 after months of nationwide protests calling for a comprehensive political reform.
People are not psyched about the prospect of having yet another national unity government, said Nasser. “We all know what that means. It will be the same people who put their sectarian interests ahead of everything else.”
“The whole world is helping Lebanon now, but all of this means nothing for our country,” she continued. “We do not want short term aids. No country can survive without a long term vision.”
“This is now the chance for us to be thinking how we should elect our leaders,” said Nasser.