BEIRUT – On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron gave Lebanese politicians until the end of October to start delivering on reforms, saying financial aid would be withheld and sanctions imposed further down the line if corruption gets in the way.
Macron told a news conference in Beirut that political leaders had agreed to form a government of experts in the next two weeks to help chart a new course for the Middle East nation collapsing under the weight of an economic meltdown.
“There is no blank check given to Lebanon, this is a demand with an appointment in six to eight weeks,” Macron said in his second visit in less than a month to press for action to tackle a financial crisis rooted in corruption and mismanagement.
“If your political class fails, then we will not come to Lebanon’s aid,” he added.
Macron said targeted sanctions could be imposed in case of proven corruption and would be coordinated with the European Union, but that this was not on the agenda for October because “we are in a process of trust and mutual engagement.”
The financial crisis, compounded by the devastating explosion at Beirut port last month, is the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since its 1975-1990 civil war.
In central Beirut, riot police and armored personnel carriers fired tear gas to disperse protesters outside parliament angry at the political elite. Some protesters hurled rocks.
Riot police also deployed outside the venue where Macron held one-on-one meetings with the country’s political leaders.
Lebanese politicians, some former warlords who have overseen decades of industrial-scale corruption, face a daunting task with an economy in meltdown, a swathe of Beirut in tatters after the Aug. 4 port blast and sectarian tensions rising.
Macron, who toured the wrecked port, said he wanted “credible commitments” to a reform roadmap that includes a central bank audit and a follow-up mechanism, including legislative polls in six to 12 months.
The French president said he had tried to convince the politicians that the electoral law should not be a preamble to reform because “it will stall everything.”
Pressure from Macron, who said he would visit again in December, has already pushed major parties to agree on a new prime minister, Mustapha Adib, who has called for the rapid formation of a government and promised to implement reforms swiftly to secure a deal with the International Monetary Fund.
Forming a cabinet has taken months in the past.
Macron, who visited Beirut in the early aftermath of the August blast that killed more than 190 people, said world powers must stay focused on the emergency in Lebanon.
He said Paris was ready to help organize and host an international conference with the United Nations in October.
Although Macron has taken center stage in demanding change, other foreign powers still exercise big influence on Lebanon, notably Iran through the heavily armed Shi’a group Hezbollah.
A senior envoy from the United States, which classifies Hezbollah a terrorist organization and which has pumped money into the Lebanon’s army, is due in Beirut on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia has also traditionally exercised sway through Lebanon’s Sunni community.
Macron marked Lebanon’s centenary by planting a cedar tree in a forest outside Beirut.
The French air force flew overhead, leaving smoke trails of red, white and green, the national colors of Lebanon, whose borders were proclaimed by France 100 years ago in an imperial carve-up with Britain. It gained independence in 1943.
Crushed by a mountain of debt, Lebanon’s currency has collapsed and depositors have been frozen out of their increasingly worthless savings in a paralyzed banking system. Poverty and unemployment have soared.
“Today everything is blocked and Lebanon can no longer finance itself,” Macron had said earlier, adding the central bank and banking system were in crisis and an audit was needed.
“We need to know the truth of the numbers, so that judicial actions can then be taken,” he said.