The shockwaves of the Beirut blast this past August, which took more than 200 lives and injured thousands, were felt not just within the periphery of the Lebanese capital but around the world. Images of Beirut’s port shattered to pieces, under billows of mushroom shaped clouds, were left imprinted on our memory and social media feed in the hours that passed. Soon afterwards, reports surfaced of a colossal mismanagement of the ammonium nitrate stockpile left in the middle of the port of Beirut with the full knowledge of the Lebanese government, which also included business ties to Assad’s Syria.
Lebanon had already been enduring ferocious protests since late 2019, over decades of government corruption; hyper-inflation of the Lebanese Lira with a crashing economy; along with a harsh lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit poorer Lebanese the hardest. The Beirut explosion ultimately became “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in the mounting frustration of the Lebanese people, exacerbated by the absence of leadership in the recovery efforts, as citizens mobilized themselves on social medial to provide assistance and services in its place.
While the Lebanese government was missing in action, French President Emmanuel Macron was among the first international responders to appear.
However, while the Lebanese government was missing in action, French President Emmanuel Macron was among the first international responders to appear amid the chaos and debris, offering very visual support of the Lebanese people. President Macron, who takes great pleasure in proclaiming himself “Jupiter” – implying that the French political process revolves around him – couldn’t have received a better reception. He was welcomed with open arms by weary Beirutis, as he dutifully listened to their woes.
As he passed through the rubbles in the city’s districts, he was surrounded by placards and signs from the Beiruti population asking him to not allow France to give any aid money to the Lebanese government. Such was their distrust of the Lebanese state that the citizens were fearful that the corrupt Lebanese government would simply pocket it. Macron appeared attentive to their concerns and, most impressive of all, rolled up his sleeves and visited the destruction site, demonstrating France’s desire to aid the people.
It was the perfect show of solidarity from France in affirming its commitment to support the plight of the Lebanese people, yet some wondered whether this was a purely diplomatic endeavor or more of a public relations ploy. A deeper look into this reveals that despite the humanitarian gesture, Macron’s visit in the aftermath of the blast was a highly strategic move, with pseudo-colonialist implications. The actual intention was to assert that even though the Lebanese government was absent, France was in charge – or at least, more in charge than previously assumed.
The French Connection
French involvement in Lebanon predates the formation of the Lebanese state back in 1943. It began with French crusaders who, when passing into Lebanon on their way to Jerusalem, felt it was their duty to support the local Lebanese Catholics (commonly referred to as the Maronites) whom they viewed as “culturally superior” to Muslims. They set out to help fellow Christians in what they felt was “a sea of Muslim oppressors.” For years following the Crusades, it was the Lebanese Christians who turned to their “Christian brethren” in France as the various religious groups in Lebanon (Sunni Muslims, Shia’a Muslims, and the mysterious sect of the Chouf Mountains called the Druze) warred amongst themselves.
This connection with France via a common Christian identity has yet to be uprooted over the centuries, with many Lebanese Christians feeling more affinity to France and its Christian heritage than to other Arab neighbors, whom they see as predominately Muslim and “too eastern.” Many Maronites even view themselves as more “Western” with some going so far as to say they’re not even Arab but Phoenician – the ancient peoples who occupied the areas that are now known as Lebanon, Tunisia, southern Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia and who were famous for their seafaring and influence in Mediterranean culture.
Together with the UK, France signed the famed Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 which established the modern boundaries of the Middle Eastern nations.
It was this legacy and identity association that also saw France grab at Lebanon following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of what is now the Middle East for over 500 years. Together with the United Kingdom, France signed the famed Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 which established the modern boundaries of the Middle Eastern nations as we know it, including the establishment of Lebanon, of which France held over as a colonial mandate.
Despite the colonial perks of acquiring Lebanon (such as access to Beirut’s port) and in order to take advantage of the historical ties with the Maronites, France maintained its assistance to empower and protect its “allies” (i.e. the Lebanese Christians) from any hostility from the Muslims and Druze. This was among the reasons for its intervention, encouraging the development of the sectarian political system that still exists in Lebanon. This system, Al Mithaq al Watani (The National Pact), laid the foundations for Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing, and created the Lebanese confessional state which divided and consolidated power amongst the religious sects, with the intention of keeping the peace and ensuring stability.
French Power Play
Despite the political independence of Lebanon in 1943, the country has been a textbook example of geopolitics at play. Just as France has been the patron of the Lebanese Christian community, so has Saudi Arabia for Lebanese Sunni Muslims and Iran for Lebanese Shi’a through Hezbollah – the Shia militia party of Lebanon – which is backed and supported heavily by Tehran.
Each country has invested in their own interests while overlooking the needs of the Lebanese people, who rarely benefit from external interference. For France, its key interest in Lebanon is ensuring stability in order to avert extremism, with the war in Syria and the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cradling this sliver of a country, just a three-hour length drive from north to south.
For Macron, ensuring a strong French presence in the world – especially in the Francophone world which includes Lebanon – is vital to his vision of French foreign policy. As a former colony and part of the Francophonie (the collection of French speaking countries that answer to the UK’s Commonwealth, linked to its colonial legacy), Macron’s immediate visit to the streets of Beirut therefore fulfilled a key strategic agenda: demonstrating that in a chaotic world, France is to be relied on.
Macron’s immediate visit to the streets of Beirut fulfilled a key strategic agenda: demonstrating that in a chaotic world, France is to be relied on.
This tactic implies that if France was the savior to the Lebanese Christians, then it can be a savior to all Lebanese people – including the Sunni and Shi’a, promising to fight for them where the local government had failed. It also serves as a front to counter the influence of Hezbollah which has historically intervened in providing necessities and assistance – not only to the Shi’a community but to Christians as well – when the Lebanese state has neglected to do so.
Yet the savior image that Macron was aiming for was diminished by his actual actions. In the swift meetings he held with Lebanese leadership during his visit, his approach was domineering and borderline condescending as he demanded that the Lebanese government commit to revising its current structure in line with an organization that would be “responsible” and committed to the Lebanese people.
While the egocentric and profiteering manner in which the Lebanese state has been handling its affairs for the past 30 years and the aftermath of the explosion cannot be denied, Macron’s tone towards the Lebanese government in the weeks that followed stripped it of the state-to-state dialogue and reverted it instead to a “former colonial power to former colony” dynamic, as he proceeded to chastise the Lebanese government for their inaction and failing to deliver positive outcome.
Even the initial delivery of his announcement of France’s commitment to the Lebanese people was done from the damaged yet still stately residence of the French Ambassador to Lebanon in Beirut – which also happened to the be the site of the official declaration of the Lebanese state independence under the careful eye of the French government, following the end of its mandate. Along with Macron’s preference for symbolism in all aspects, the tone of his comments from the Ambassador’s house conveyed another subtle message: “We’re still in charge.”
With all the pomp and circumstance of his arrival, there were little sustainable outcomes from Macron’s efforts.
However, with all the pomp and circumstance of his arrival, there were little sustainable outcomes from Macron’s efforts. Despite presenting the formation of a new cabinet with independent ministers to tackle the grievances of the Lebanese people a key component, interim Prime Minister Mustapha Adib (nominated by Macron himself) resigned, and by the end of September 2020 it was evident that none of the key action points Macron had announced would come to fruition, leading to what Macron called his great “disappointment.” Yet considering the dismal state of affairs in Lebanon, it was both naïve and foolish for Macron to believe France could make Lebanon change as rapidly as it did after the French Mandate.
Macron’s performance showcases that the intention was never to foster a more responsible government, nor was it truly humanitarian. Instead, France’s strategic interest in Lebanon (and its influence) were what Macron desired to save, and he achieved this aim by demonstrating that neither Saudi Arabia nor Hezbollah could exercise real influence in Lebanon as France did. Winning the love and support of the Lebanese in Beirut, with crowds that were mixed with Christians, Shia, Druze, and Sunni Muslims alike, Macron managed to fill a void left by the Lebanese government’s turmoil.
Ultimately, Macron’s visit to Lebanon following the Beirut blast had more pseudo-colonialist tendencies than any substantial and sustainable humanitarian engagement for a weary population. He appeared more as a “white savior” and “former colonial watch dog” than as an ally of the Lebanese people, using the event for his own advancement. While it may have appeared to be a gesture of European solidarity, given the deeply rooted history and interest of France in Lebanon, along with the present geopolitical dynamics, it was nothing more than an exercise of power, meant to show all of those involved in the Lebanese political dynamic who’s the real leader in charge. Indeed, Macron knows this could serve him well in renewing the image he desires for France in Lebanon.