France pledges support for new Lebanese prime minister
PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the new Lebanese Prime Minister to the presidential palace on Friday, wishing him success and promising that France would continue to support the country in crisis. In Beirut, protesters pelted commercial banks with eggs and rallied against politicians for obstructing the investigation into last year’s devastating port explosion.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati is on his first trip abroad after taking office, days after his government was confirmed by Parliament – a move that ended a 13-month standoff that had arisen then that Lebanon is grappling with an economic collapse and increasing poverty.
“You have an immense and historic responsibility,” Macron told Mikati at a joint press conference at the Elysee Palace. “We will do anything to help you succeed.”
Throughout the Lebanese crisis, France took the initiative of the international community by helping the small country in the Middle East, a former French protectorate. Paris has hosted conferences on aid and pushed for reform, and last year Macron presented Lebanese politicians with a roadmap for policy change and reforms and berated them for failing to form a government. But his practical approach failed to speed up government formation or bring about major changes.
Macron said on Friday that Lebanon faced a “humanitarian emergency” and pledged that France would contribute to efforts to “mobilize the international community to meet the most urgent needs”.
“We have the opportunity to make concrete progress on the reform path,” Macron said, adding that international support could provide more help once the energy sector and public finance reforms are launched.
“The road is steep and the task is difficult,” Macron said. “We are here. France will remain at the side of the Lebanese people.”
Mikati’s government is expected to undertake much-needed reforms while dealing with growing public anger and tensions resulting from the worsening difficulties. He said he would count on France’s support during talks with the International Monetary Fund to negotiate a stimulus package, a priority for the new government.
“I assured the President of my determination to implement as soon as possible – with my government and with the support of the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, and with the support of Parliament – the necessary and imminent reforms to regain confidence and restore hope to reduce the suffering of the Lebanese people, ”Mikati said, speaking in French.
Mikati has said he will lift subsidies by the end of September as Lebanese foreign reserves are dangerously low and the central bank can no longer support its $ 6 billion subsidy program.
Billionaire businessman and one of Lebanon’s richest men – and now third prime minister – Mikati is widely regarded as part of the entrenched political elite. Few believe he can chart a course for reform with a government that leaves power in the hands of the same political parties the public accuses of corruption and mismanagement of Lebanon’s resources.
On Friday, dozens of Lebanese demonstrated in front of several private banks in central Beirut, demanding access to their hard currency deposits which have been de facto blocked since the financial and economic crisis in late 2019. Protesters threw eggs and tomatoes on the bank buildings, causing angry bank workers to yell at them and Lebanese security forces pushed back the crowd.
Private banks have imposed informal capital controls, limiting withdrawals, transfers and effectively preventing access to foreign currency accounts. The national currency has since been in free fall, losing more than 90% of its value.
Highlighting one of the first hurdles the Mikati government faces, the families of the victims of the massive August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut on Friday denounced what they say is continued political interference in the investigation. national report on the causes of the explosion and bring those responsible to justice.
In a statement, they requested international protection for the lead judge in the investigation, Tarek Bitar, suggesting his life and that of his family could be in danger following the reported threats.
“Covering the truth about the port explosion will be dangerous for the unity of Lebanon,” he said.
The independence of the Lebanese judiciary and accountability for corruption and political violence has been one of the main demands of the international community and of the Lebanese campaigns for reform. French prosecutors have opened an investigation into money laundering allegations against the governor of Lebanon’s central bank.
Lebanese media recently revealed that Bitar had received threats, allegedly from senior officials of the powerful militant group Hezbollah who reportedly grew impatient with the investigation and threatened to fire him.
After the leak, Bitar reported the threat to prosecutors. Hezbollah has not commented on the threat, but the leader of the Iranian-backed group had in the past criticized Bitar for an allegedly “politicized” investigation. No member of Hezbollah was involved in the investigation and his concerns about the investigation are unclear.
Meanwhile, two former ministers accused of willful negligence leading to the explosion of the port, have asked the country’s highest court to replace Bitar, the second judge to lead the complicated and thorny investigation. The former was withdrawn earlier this year after similar challenges in court.
El Deeb reported from Beirut.