French President Emanuel Macron was the first international or regional leader to visit Beirut following the devastating explosion a month ago. He even toured the port and city before most of Lebanon's leaders. The Lebanese people, who were already suffering from economic, social, health and political crises, surrounded Macron and called out, "Mr President, save us."
The French leader responded with: "I love you Lebanon. I love you Lebanon." At the end of his visit, he stressed that, "France will never leave Lebanon and will not disappoint the Lebanese people." He reiterated the belief that the "destiny" of both France and Lebanon "has spiritual and historic" connections.
Almost 60,000 Lebanese citizens signed a petition requesting the restoration of the French Mandate in Lebanon to save them from the corrupt political elite in the country, which they believe is responsible for the crises and the explosion in the port. Such people are under a serious misapprehension; the Lebanese will never get any benefit from France, just further suffering.
Macron's remarks reflected the belief that Lebanon is still a French colony. As long ago as 1250, French King Louis IX granted Maronite Christians in the region the same status as French subjects regarding "rights, privileges and protection" after their assistance during his invasion of Acre and the Levant coast. The current French leader might also recall King Francois I's agreement with the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent in 1535, when he was granted certain privileges, including the protection of any and all the Catholics in the Ottoman Empire. This affected the Maronites in particular during the reign of Louis XIV between 1638 and 1715.
Later on, the Maronites around Mount Lebanon continued supporting the Crusaders and maintained good relations with France, which intervened in the 19th century to help the Christians after a civil war and famine hit the area. In 1920, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations granted France a mandate over Lebanon and Syria.
On 1 September 1920, General Henri Gouraud, the French High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon annexed parts of Syria and Beirut to Mount Lebanon and proclaimed the establishment of the state of Greater Lebanon within its present borders and the port city as its capital.
According to the Week Magazine, "By the time of the 1920-1946 French mandate, Lebanon already had a network of French schools and French speakers that survives to this day along with France's cosy relationships with Lebanon's power brokers."
In a paper published by the Democratic Arab Centre, Mohsen Al-Komi stated that successive French presidents have never cut their connections with Lebanon, noting that they "must" tour the Middle East country either before or after taking office. Today, almost all of the Lebanese sects have about 250,000 members in France as well as official representatives.
"Michel Aoun, (a Maronite Christian and the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement) founded his party in Paris, which supported it with everything to stand up and be its representative in Lebanon," Al-Komi wrote. He cited this as an example about the relationship between France and the Christian Lebanese, whom the French historically consider to be similar to French citizens.
In the absence of the Americans from Lebanon due to their preoccupation with the presidential election and mobilisation of more Arab allies for Israel, France has the stage to itself and is wielding a big stick to deal with Lebanese officials.
"With an eye for symbolism," said Politico, "Macron delivered the message to the leaders of Lebanon's political parties at the stately mansion in Beirut that serves as the official residence of the French ambassador." The French president knows that this mansion was the headquarters of France's colonial government in Lebanon.
Macron's message was like orders given by a general to his officers that they cannot in any way disobey. "The French president gave Lebanon's leaders until the end of the month to begin a reset of the political system and replace the rampant corruption and poor governance that dogged the country even before the catastrophic explosion [in August]," added Politico.
Macron believes that major "tragedies can influence geopolitics and international relations;" so he immediately travelled to Lebanon, "aiming not only to show solidarity, but to show signs of binational cooperation for the Lebanese recovery. However, this 'cooperation' soon proved to be a real attempt to violate Lebanon's sovereignty and to impose interests and agendas."
In the very building where the French Colonial Government declared the state of Greater Lebanon, Macron said: "It's time for responsibility in Lebanonâ€¦ We raised funds in the past, but we can only do it if the Lebanese authorities take their responsibilities to allow us to fully help Lebanon." He stressed that the Lebanese leaders must meet the deadline he set for resetting their political system.
Assistance could, of course, be handed directly to needy people. What's more, the one who genuinely wants to help does not put obstacles in the way or set conditions that might delay the arrival of aid. Desperately needed assistance arrived from Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and other countries before French aid.
Lebanese Professor of Political Sciences Mustapha Hadraj told Orient TV last week that a senior Turkish official arrived immediately after the explosion in Beirut with field hospitals and tons of aid, and offered to rebuild the Port of Beirut. Moreover, Ankara placed a Turkish port at Beirut's disposal until the Lebanese port is operational again, without any conditions. Unlike other countries, the French delivered their aid to Beirut on board a French naval vessel. This was hugely symbolic.
Lebanese citizens surrounded Macron in Beirut last month and asked him for help. They believed, clearly, that France has more influence over Lebanon's political system than they do.
Macron's response proved that they were right to believe this: "I guarantee you, this aid will not go to corrupt hands," Reuters reported him telling the crowd. He was referring, of course, to Lebanese politicians. "I am here today to propose a new political pact to them," he said, "if they don't [accept my proposal], I will take my responsibilities."
He told Lebanese leaders that, "If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink." This was described by the leader of the France Unbowed (La France Insoumise) party, Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon, as "interference" in Lebanon's internal affairs. According to Reuters, he warned against this and insisted that it won't be accepted. "Lebanon," said MĂ©lenchon, "is not a French protectorate."
While Macron sets the agenda and issues orders, the Lebanese leaders can only say "Yes, sir". They agreed, for example, on the nomination of Mustapha Adib as prime minister-designate even before Macron returned for a second visit; the process would normally take weeks. This was obedience for us all to see, with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement pulling back from their own nominee and supporting Adib instead. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt rejected Adib, but after a telephone call with Macron gave his backing.
That second visit was also symbolic, coinciding with the 1 September anniversary of the creation of the state of Greater Lebanon. Macron hinted at his colonial way of thinking. "There is no blank chequeâ€¦ If reforms, including an audit of the central bank, are not passed within the deadline, international aid will be withheld." The reforms that Macron wants to see put French interests first.
Professor Hadraj said that Macron disappointed Lebanon by turning to the same corrupt elite, with Adib part of the political system that the people have been seeking to oust. He was Lebanon's Ambassador to Berlin where, according to Orient TV, he served French interests more than Lebanon's. This was confirmed by researcher Mahmoud Allouch, who said that he knew Adib for two years when he was a university professor. Protesters in Lebanon insisted that Adib is a "face of the past and current" corrupt governments.
Choosing and supporting Adib is clearly not a Lebanese demand, but an insistence of the French even if he was corrupt. Macron is sticking to him even if his pledges that aid would not go to the corrupt will be meaningless. "Adib will not do it," protesters shouted as Macron visited Lebanese singer Fayrouz to present her with the Legion of Honour, France's highest award. "We want Nawaf Salam."
When French journalist Georges Malbrunot revealed that Macron had held a secret meeting with Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad, the French president reprimanded him publicly, telling him that his work harms French interests. Orient TV revealed that one of Macron's conditions for the nomination of the new Lebanese prime minister was the agreement of Hezbollah.
Hadraj also revealed that Macron telephoned Iran's President Hassan Rouhani twice within the past few weeks and asked him to let Hezbollah facilitate the job of the new Lebanese government. Speaking to Rouhani, Macron is reported to have said that it is essential "for all the powers concernedâ€¦ to support the putting in place of a government that can manage the emergency."
It is not clear whether Macron will succeed in this mission or not, but he is doing his best to win Lebanon back for colonial France. He might succeed. As he told Politico, "It's a risky bet I'm making, I am aware of itâ€¦ I am putting the only thing I have on the table: my political capital."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.