Macron's neo-colonial theatrics throw a lifeline to Lebanon's corrupt elite

Macron's neo-colonial theatrics throw a lifeline to Lebanon's corrupt elite
Comment: The 'new contract' Macron proposes for Lebanon will allow corrupt elites to remain in power, while selling the country out to French interests, writes Nizar Hassan.
7 min read
03 Sep, 2020
Macron attends a ceremony to mark Lebanon's centenary in Jaj Cedars Reserve Forest [Getty]
One hundred years ago, on 1 September 1920, the French high commissioner, General Henri Gouraud announced the creation of Greater Lebanon from the Pine Residence in Beirut. 

Lebanon, a French protectorate (read: colony) was then awarded a flag by the French colonisers, one whose colours matched those of the French flag, but with a cedar in the middle.

On Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Greater Lebanon was celebrated by French fighter jets drawing Lebanon's now-changed flag in the sky, the French embassy handing politicians a "draft programme" for Lebanon's next government, and French president Emmanuel Macron starring in the neo-colonial theatrics he began during his first visit a few weeks earlier.

If France's first colonial endeavour in Lebanon was the result of agreements between European imperial powers, the second is the fault of a ruling class that has sent Lebanon into a death spiral in its attempt to maximize its own power and wealth.

Macron would have no leverage if our political class was not so desperate for a bailout after wasting, stealing and smuggling out our resources; and recently causing a tragic explosion that wrecked the port and capital.

Macron came waving both a carrot and a stick in front of the Lebanese political establishment. The bottom line is that France is ready to help Lebanon and invest in it. But this time, his strong rhetoric against the political establishment was reportedly backed by threats of sanctions against its major political figures.

Those at risk of potential sanctions, according to an article by Le Figaro's Georges Malbrunot, are top-tier politicians. These include longtime allies of France such as Saad Hariri, and those who found refuge in France after self-exiling to escape the Syrian regime's control, such as the Aoun family and its associates.

It is more than normal for the people of Lebanon to rejoice with the news that the foreign assets and accounts of the biggest heads in the ruling oligarchy might be frozen. In fact, this would be one of the ways to get real, desperately-needed dollars into the Lebanese economy.

But fantasies aside, we should be wary of welcoming such sanctions when they come as part of a political crusade. According to Malbrunot's report, Macron has been coordinating his sanctions threats with US President Donald Trump.

While that looks like a pragmatic way of riding Trump's aggressive politics in Lebanon, it is based more on hopeful idealism than realist political strategy. Donald Trump has no moral or justice-based reasoning behind his policy, and Macron should know better than expecting otherwise.

Trump has endorsed and forged alliances with corrupt, authoritarian, or outright criminal foreign politicians. To think that his sanctions will target the political establishment fairly in Lebanon is a silly fairytale.

Regardless of the politics behind the sanctions plans, it seems they have achieved their intended impact. Politicians who have become experts in procrastination and inaction, suddenly acted swiftly to give the next prime minister position to Moustapha Adib, Lebanon's ambassador to Germany and a longtime aide to oligarch Najib Mikati, Lebanon's former prime minister and one of its richest nationals.

President Michel Aoun called for the mandatory parliamentary consultation to designate a PM on the day before Macron arrived, and all major political parties' blocs flocked to the presidential palace to nominate the previously-unknown to the public Adib, with the exception of the Lebanese Forces that has already situated itself as a political opposition.

Read more: US says new Lebanese government must pursue 'real change'

Local media reports citing political sources claimed that it was Macron who nominated Adib, and "informed" Lebanon's top leader of the choice. Regardless how accurate that is, there is no logical reason to believe Macron's claim that he had never nominated Adib or even known him. Especially given he confidently called for the formation of the government without questioning the nomination.

Saad Hariri, a former rival to Mikati on Sunni political leadership, was one of Adib's most enthusiastic supporters, and seems to have now forged a solid strategic alliance with Adib's former boss, Mikati. What, one wonders, brings two of the richest and allegedly most corrupt political families together in these particular times? 

After the resignation of the current caretaker government, I wrote that the worst possible next outcome would be a figure from the establishment forming "a new government where most oligarchs have their share, under the pretext of 'national unity.'" Unfortunately, this now seems to be the case.

By midwifing such a government, Macron is actually providing what is perhaps the last viable lifeline for the political establishment in Lebanon and the sectarian power-sharing system it has maintained.

Yes, he spoke of the need for a "new contract," but any serious funding for the Lebanese government in the upcoming period will inevitably pump oxygen into the system of crony capitalism and sectarian clientelism.

Not only did Macron promise a donor conference if his conditions were met, but also directly reinforced the credibility of the ruling class on the basis of the parliamentary elections of 2018. He said in his latest visit that he could not encourage "overthrowing the whole political class" since the parliament was elected and therefore its parties have democratic legitimacy to rule. 

The remedies are nothing more than a bottom line, one that the political establishment can arguably accomplish without losing most of its power

What Macron ignored in this approach is that the results of the 2018 election are as good as trash today, both because the situation is drastically different and because the people rose up against political institutions and factions in October 2019, in a movement with a combination of scale and diversity never seen before in Lebanon's history.

More important than Macron's political assessment is the political impact of his actions, and his intentions for Lebanon. Rather than stopping at the question of what he wants for Lebanon, we should ask what Macron wants from Lebanon.

The content of the reported policy list handed to our politicians by the French embassy is not necessarily interesting to delve into, as most of the proposals and demands have been put forward by activist groups over the last few years, with an expected focus on more "liberal" demands related to corruption and administration than those related to social justice and redistribution.

In that sense, the remedies are nothing more than a bottom line, one that the political establishment can arguably accomplish without losing most of its power. The French list does not seem to give special attention to issues related to the structures of the economic and financial systems, and the sectarian nature of politics and administration.

And its mention of "elections within a year" was also taken back by Macron who said there was "no consensus" on holding early parliamentary elections.

How is it a 'new contract' then, if it does not shake up the balance of wealth and power?

How is it a "new contract" then, if it does not shake up the balance of wealth and power?

So the question remains: what is Macron interested in? What motivates him to dedicate so much attention to Lebanon at this moment? There is little reason to doubt reports and analyses that say Macron's package of demands also includes making it easier for French companies to be granted contracts for the port's reconstruction and other major public investments, and potentially control over industries and facilities to be privatised in the near future.

This is something to keep an eye on, especially if government formation proceeds smoothly and Macron makes his next planned visit in December.

The Lebanese oligarchy finds no problem selling out the country in return for staying in power and avoiding accountability. The pie of the state's resources might become smaller with austerity policies and foreign privatisation, but I am confident they will find a way to share it.

Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese organiser, researcher and podcaster based in Beirut. He is a co-founder of the progressive political movement LiHaqqi, he researches workers rights and social movements, and co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast.