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 Lebanon for the second time in less than a month, Macron marked the country’s centenary by planting a cedar tree, the emblem of a nation that is facing its biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.
“It’s the last chance for this system,” Macron told POLITICO in an interview while travelling to Beirut on Monday. “It’s a risky bet I’m making, I am aware of it … I am putting the only thing I have on the table: my political capital.”
Macron said he was seeking “credible commitments” and a “demanding follow-up mechanism” from Lebanon’s leaders, including a legislative election in six to 12 months.
Lebanese politicians, some former warlords who have overseen decades of industrial-scale state corruption, face a daunting task with an economy in crisis, a swathe of Beirut in tatters after the Aug. 4 port blast and sectarian tensions rising.
In the hours before his arrival on Monday, a new prime minister was designated, Mustapha Adib, following a consensus among major parties that senior Lebanese politicians said was forged under pressure from Macron over the weekend.
Macron, who also visited last month in the immediate aftermath of the blast that killed more than 190 people and injured 6,000, planted the cedar sapling at a forest reserve in the mountains northeast of Beirut.
The French president’s Elysée palace said Macron had planted the tree to show his “confidence in the future of the country”.
The French air force display team 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, who has been at the centre of international efforts to press Lebanese leaders to tackle corruption and take other steps to fix their country, began his trip late on Monday by meeting Fairouz, 85, one of the Arab world’s most famous singers whose music transcends Lebanon’s deep divisions.
He was greeted by dozens of protesters gathered outside her home with placards reading “No cabinet by, or with, the murderers” and “Don’t be on the wrong side of history!”
He told reporters on Monday he wanted to “ensure that the government that is formed will implement the necessary reforms.”
Macron’s agenda includes a tour of the devastated Beirut port, a meeting with President Michel Aoun for a centenary reception and meetings with Lebanon’s various factions.
After being designated as premier on Monday, Adib called for the rapid formation of a government, immediate implementation of reforms and an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
Lebanon’s economic crisis is rooted in decades of state corruption and waste that landed the state with one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens.
Since October, the currency has collapsed and depositors have been frozen out of their savings while the real value of those deposits has collapsed in a paralysed banking system. Poverty and unemployment has soared in a nation that already hosts the world’s largest number of refugees per capita.
France’s foreign minister said last week that Lebanon risked disappearing because of the inaction of its political elite who needed to quickly form a new government to implement reforms.