As he walked the streets of Beirut in the aftermath of last week’s horrifying warehouse explosion, Emmanuel Macron cut an extraordinary figure.
Here was the President of France, Lebanon’s former European mandate power (the title of ‘former imperial power’ perhaps better fits Turkey), being treated as a hero by a population simultaneously taking to the streets against their own government.
Stranger still, a petition calling for France to temporarily re-establish control over the country achieved over 60,000 signatures – a timely illustration of the often complex legacy of Empire. Vive le Liban français?
Before anyone starts reaching for Bruce Gilley’s The Case for Colonialism, it goes without saying that this, even in so strange a year as 2020, is not going to happen. Macron himself has been quick to say that “There is no French solution” to Lebanon’s woes.
Yet it isn’t difficult to see why his critics are accusing him of planning to ‘reconquer’ the country. In his choice of political theatrics, the President practically invites the comparison. On his first visit he gathered party leaders close to the spot where the creation of Greater Lebanon by France was declared. His second visit, to renew pressure on local leaders, will be on September 1 – the centenary of that declaration.
If Macron’s strategy isn’t outright neo-colonialism, it isn’t a model of modern, disinterested multilateralism either. It’s clear that he thinks France has a special role to play in the hunt for a solution.
This has already provoked a backlash, and not just from the President’s domestic opponents. With so many powers vying for influence in the Middle East, any flexing by Paris is going to be noticed. Thus the media reports that even as Macron was touring Beirut, “the health minister in the Hezbollah-backed government toured field hospitals donated by Iran and Russia”.
Whether or not this should deter a more muscular French approach is another question. The health minister’s tour is a reminder that in Lebanon, as across much of the world, the Western powers face new challengers who do not share their commitment to the rules of the international game. Whilst Macron stresses that his goal is not to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs, Moscow and Tehran show no such compunctions.
If Iran is not going to stop bankrolling Hezbollah – whose military wing both France and the European Union have proscribed as a terrorist organisation – and utilising it both within Lebanon and in neighbouring countries, then could not a degree of intervention, if not ‘interference’, by France or other Western powers provide a counter-weight to it? Macron appears to believe so, if his comments about his ‘political responsibilities’ are any indication.
This isn’t just about asserting French interests. The recent tragedy, and the huge public backlash it has sparked, have put a spotlight on Lebanon’s deeply dysfunctional government. Fostering and entrenching new norms around things like transparency and corruption will be essential to long-term change – and this will require partnership with, and leadership from, nations which share those values. If autocracies and theocracies are striving to mould other countries in their image, democracies cannot afford to quit the field. They can play the game as sensitively as they like, but play it they must.
Fortunately, we are not without examples of it being played well. Indeed, one historic example offers some striking parallels: the British intervention in Sierra Leone. This not only saw a former colonial power assuming a major role in rebuilding a former colony wracked by conflict, but similar sights of the Prime Minister being fêted in the streets and even some equally outlandish evidence of support for British ‘trusteeship’ over the country. Overall, the United Kingdom managed to draw on its resources and unique relationship with Sierra Leone to do a lot of good, without crossing the line.
This is no guarantee that France could do the same thing. Just as Sierra Leone and Lebanon pose very different challenges, so too have France and the UK developed different approaches to their former imperial possessions – there is no obvious British equivalent of ‘Françafrique’.
Nor did Tony Blair’s intervention carry the same risks of a real or perceived ‘clash of civilisations’. France carved Lebanon out of what became modern Syria in pursuit of a long-standing mission to be a champion for Christians in the Middle East. Whilst few would deny that the region’s remaining Christians could use a powerful friend, and a revived Lebanon might well provide a platform for sheltering or supporting persecuted communities, Macron will need to be very careful not to gift Iran and her proxies – not to mention Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism – the vision of a latter-day crusader.
For all that, however, Macron’s will to act is welcome. By making sure at the very least that international aid is accompanied by robust reform and is directed to where it belongs, he would be not only discharging a historic responsibility to Lebanon but a very modern imperative: to uphold the norms and values of the post-War world order.
And when you look at the alternatives, it isn’t all that hard to see why some Lebanese might want a strong friend in France.
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