PARIS/BEIRUT: French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing Lebanon's political leaders to install an interim technocratic government able to enact reforms, win back public confidence and persuade donors to release billions of dollars in aid.
A French diplomatic source said Macron delivered his message to Lebanon's political parties on a visit to Beirut two days after the Aug 4 port explosion that destroyed whole neighbourhoods, killed 172 people and made 250,000 homeless.
The Lebanese government has since resigned amid angry street protests, though it continues in caretaker mode until a new administration is formed. Three Lebanese political sources said Macron, who was surrounded by crowds as he toured Beirut, was at the centre of international efforts to resolve the crisis.
"There would be a first government whose mission would be to carry out urgent reforms," said the French diplomatic source familiar with Macron's thinking. "A government of technocrats, if you will, that can pass the reforms, manage emergency aid and respond to the aspirations of Beirut's people."
Macron wants to use Lebanon's desperate need for international reconstruction aid as leverage to persuade its factions to choose a new administration led by individuals untainted by corruption and backed by foreign donors.
The outgoing government comprised mostly technocrat ministers but these were nominated by sectarian leaders who exerted influence on them and obstructed reforms. Politicians fear reforms would end their system of patronage.
The cost of rebuilding Beirut is estimated at up to US$30 billion, money Lebanon does not have. "More than anywhere else, time is money in Lebanon," a French finance ministry source said, referring to the pressure on factions to access aid.
That potentially gives donors huge influence, though attempts to use that to shape a new leadership faces big challenges.
The sectarian factions that dominate Lebanese politics through a power-sharing system are reluctant to give up control. They hold sway over the main sectarian groups, including Christians, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and Druze.
In Beirut, Macron stood amid rubble and hugged distraught Lebanese, vowing not to let future aid fall into corrupt hands.
Though emergency relief has poured in, he said longer-term financial aid for the shattered economy, already on its knees before the blast, would require reform. As a last resort to spur action, he also raised the prospect of sanctions.
"Since he came here, Macron is acting as if he is president of Lebanon now," said one senior Lebanese political source, adding that Macron was personally making calls to Lebanon's rival parties as well as other foreign powers.
"Which is not bad because there is nobody today to play this role internally. Nobody trusts anyone."
"STILL FAR AWAY"
Protesters have demanded not only the removal of the political elite but also an overhaul of the power-sharing system, which many see as fuelling decades of cronyism.
A second Lebanese political source said his party was open to supporting a deal that allowed Lebanon to benefit from the renewed international momentum created by the French initiative.
But the source cautioned the process of forming a government would be slow: "We are nowhere near the formation of a government, or discussing it in detail. We're still far away."
A Lebanese government source said Macron wanted two-time former prime minister Saad Hariri to head a government of technocrats. But President Michel Aoun and the country's Christian parties opposed the proposal, the source added.
Macron wants broad international support for his mediation.
He has already spoken to the leaders of Russia and Iran, his office said. Iran has close ties to a powerful Lebanese faction, armed Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which is also allied with Russian forces in Syria where they back President Bashar al-Assad.
Hezbollah had influence over the former Lebanese government which did not include parties opposed to Hezbollah and Iran.
US support will be critical, both at a geopolitical level and within the International Monetary Fund. Lebanon entered talks with the IMF in May after defaulting on foreign currency debt, but the negotiations stalled in the absence of reforms.
"It is important to be sure that everyone is on board, because if the Americans are not on board and they want to screw up the process, they can," the first political source said.
The No 3 US diplomat, David Hale, who visits Lebanon this week, appeared to push in the same direction as Macron, underscoring America's willingness to support any government that is "genuinely committed" to reforms.
Even before the port blast, France was leading diplomatic efforts to persuade Lebanon to push through reforms and secure foreign aid needed to offset a financial meltdown.
Two years ago, Macron organised a donors' conference where US$11 billion was pledged for infrastructure investment, but the money hinged on reforms which were promised but not delivered.
If Lebanon's factions won't finally bend to donors' demands, French lawmaker Loic Kervran, who chairs the France-Lebanon committee, said sanctions could include asset freezes or travel bans on the elite, some of whom own upmarket property in Paris.
"Lebanese politicians travel a lot, and they travel a lot to Paris," Kervran said. "It's an important pressure tool."