On his spectacular visit to Beirut on August 6, President Macron had spoken frankly to the Lebanese authorities. He had also announced that he would return to the Lebanese capital on September 1. He did as promised, a second visit further motivated by the anniversary of a founding moment of the Franco-Lebanese relationship, the declaration of Greater Lebanon in 1920.
Is Emmanuel Macron wise to take such a strong stance in favour of change in Lebanon? Can France obtain the necessary reforms from a local political class who has been defending the status quo for decades now? What explains the French President’s visit to Baghdad? Are we witnessing a re-kindling of French foreign policy in the Middle East?
There are parallels to be drawn between the Lebanon and Iraq situations. Both countries are "rich" and yet, currently in ruins. In the case of Iraq, benefits from oil rent have been reduced by never ending internal conflicts, chaotic governance as well as the drop in hydrocarbon prices over the last couple of months. In the case of Lebanon, the financial power that underpinned the Lebanese economy started to fade in recent years, before ultimately crashing. In Lebanon as much as in Iraq, civil society has begun to call into question a system redistributing power among confessional parties known to be corrupt and preventing any potential for change. The repression of these last few months has cost the lives of 500 protesters in Iraq, which was at least not the case in Lebanon.
From a geopolitical point of view, both countries are enduring the aftermath of phenomena affecting the whole region: the weakening of Sunni communities met by the rise of stronger Shia communities, the increasing predominance of militias or other non-state actors, the risks of regional terrorist threats, or the prolongation of the Assad regime in Syria. Both Iraq and Lebanon have limited sovereignty, not only due to internal strife, but also because of interference from rival tutelary powers - Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, increasingly, Turkey.
A call for "inclusive sovereignty"
The theme of France's support for the sovereignty of the Levant States provided a sort of conceptual underpinning for the President's proposals during his two visits. Several days before his trip, Emmanuel Macron, had proposed the idea of "inclusive sovereignty" in a remarkable speech at the Forum Moyen-Orient Méditerranée (Middle Eastern Mediterranean Forum) in Lugano. Such a formula may reflect an attempt to implicitly refute reproaches that France itself practices foreign interference. However, this fits with a tradition of French diplomacy in the region, which has always believed that a return to stability requires the restoration of state authority. Nowadays, French diplomats would add "not just any state", but one that is able to include the diversity of local populations’ identities and to respond to the demands of civil society.
The message is brave, but it doesn’t please regional powers and certainly not Iran, who has powerful tools of influence in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq (multiple affiliations) and evidently, Syria. Neither does it please political elites who are sharing power in the countries concerned, nor non-state actors such as militias, who are acting as relays for foreign interference. Meanwhile, civil society can only embrace this message to the extent that it is calling, in fine, for the reinstatement of a state order. On this last point, let us note for example that, in the plane on his way to Beirut on September 1, Emmanuel Macron told Politico he believed he was the only one who could save the system in Lebanon, even while he had harshly condemned this very "system" on August 6. From one visit to the other, his discourse appeared to have adjusted to now highlight administrative and financial reforms rather than a "new political pact".