BEIRUT (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron has warned Lebanese politicians they risk sanctions if they fail to set the nation on a new course within three months, stepping up pressure for reforms in a country collapsing under the weight of an economic crisis.
Visiting for the second time in less than a month, Macron marked Lebanon’s centenary by travelling to a forest outside Beirut to plant a cedar tree, the emblem of a nation facing the biggest threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.
In central Beirut, riot police and armoured personnel carriers fired teargas to disperse protesters outside parliament as they vented anger at the mismanagement and corruption that has dragged Lebanon into crisis. Some protesters hurled rocks.
Riot police also deployed outside the venue where Macron met Lebanese political and religious leaders. One group held a banner reading: “Legitimacy comes from the people.”
Macron, who toured Beirut’s port that was devastated in an Aug. 4 explosion, adding to the national crisis, said he wanted “credible commitments” and a follow-up mechanism from Lebanon’s leaders, including a legislative election in six to 12 months.
Should they fail to shift in the next three months, punitive measures could be imposed, including withholding bailout money and sanctions on the ruling class, the French president said.
Lebanese politicians, some former warlords who have overseen decades of industrial-scale corruption, face a daunting task with an economy in meltdown, a swathe of Beirut in tatters after the port blast and sectarian tensions rising.
Pressure from Macron, who said he would visit again in December, has already pushed major parties to agree on a new prime minister, Mustapha Adib, who has called for the rapid formation of a government and promised to implement reforms swiftly to secure a deal with the International Monetary Fund.
Forming a cabinet has taken months in the past. But Macron said he would push politicians to move fast and said billions of dollars in funds pledged at a 2018 Paris donor conference in Paris would not be released without reforms.
Macron, who visited Beirut in early August aftermath the port blast that killed more than 190 people, said world powers must stay focused on the emergency in Lebanon for six weeks.
He said Paris was ready to help organise and host an international conference with the United Nations in October.
Although Macron has taken centre stage in demanding change, other foreign powers still exercise big influence on Lebanon, notably Iran through the heavily armed Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
A senior envoy from the United States, which classifies Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and which has pumped money into the Lebanon’s army, is due in Beirut on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia has also traditionally exercised sway through Lebanon’s Sunni community.
As Macron planted the cedar sapling, the French air force flew overhead, leaving smoke trails of red, white and green, the national colours of Lebanon whose borders were proclaimed by France 100 years ago in an imperial carve-up with Britain. It gained independence in 1943.
Macron began his trip on Monday by meeting Fairouz, 85, one of the Arab world’s most famous singers whose music transcends Lebanon’s divisions. Outside her home, protesters waved banners. One read: “No cabinet by, or with, the murderers.”
Crushed by a mountain of debt, Lebanon’s currency has collapsed and depositors have been frozen out of their increasingly worthless savings in a paralysed banking system. Poverty and unemployment have soared.
“Today everything is blocked and Lebanon can no longer finance itself,” Macron said, adding the central bank and banking system were in crisis and an audit was needed.
“We need to know the truth of the numbers, so that judicial actions can then be taken,” he said.