Busy diplomat Macron gets stuck into Lebanon crisis

 14 Nov 2017 - 22:56

Busy diplomat Macron gets stuck into Lebanon crisis
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (2ndL) and French President Emmanuel Macron (2ndR) attend a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, November 14, 2017. Reuters/Francois Mori

AFP

Paris:  From global warming to Iran's nuclear deal, France's Emmanuel Macron has already intervened in a series of diplomatic quagmires -- and now finds himself pursuing an active role in Lebanon's crisis.

He and his ministers have held a flurry of talks with players shaping the turmoil, with Macron jetting to Saudi Arabia last week for surprise talks with the crown prince.

He said France had a role to play in bringing peace to a region suffering soaring tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are already backing opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Like other European governments, France is pushing for Lebanese premier Saad Hariri to return following his shock resignation in Saudi Arabia on November 4 and rumours he is being held there against his will.

"France is acting so that all parties exercising an influence in Lebanon commit to the situation going back to normal as quickly as possible," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Tuesday.

Hariri himself has sought to downplay the situation, tweeting: "Guys, I am perfectly fine, and God willing I will return in the coming days."

But Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who met with Macron on Tuesday, told a press conference in Paris: "The only thing that will prove he is free to return, is his return."

Lebanon is caught between Sunni giant Saudi Arabia and the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, close to Riyadh's arch-rival Iran -- which Hariri has accused of controlling his country.

Strong relationships

France had mandate power over both Lebanon and Syria during the first half of the 20th century.

Though the room for manoeuvre is tight, Paris has been using strong regional relationships to push for Hariri's return.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is heading to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for further talks.

"What gives us our power -- including in comparison with the United States -- is that we talk to everybody," said Denis Bauchard, Middle East expert at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

"France has a special relationship in Lebanon with the three (religious) communities, including contact with the Shiites," he said.

He added that France enjoys "historically good relations with Saudi Arabia", even if Paris has seen hopes for lucrative arms deals dashed.

French ties with Tehran have also warmed since the 2015 nuclear deal, he noted.

The Lebanese crisis is not the first time since Macron's election in May in which the young French president has sought an active role in a tense diplomatic situation.

He has repeatedly said he wants to keep the Iranian deal from collapsing despite opposition from US President Donald Trump.

He has also refused to invite Trump to a Paris climate summit next month following Washington's withdrawal from the historic international pact to fight global warming.

And he organised a meeting between Libya's rival leaders in Paris in July at which they agreed a conditional ceasefire and elections for next year.

Damage limitation

Macron's apparent desire to place France at the heart of international diplomacy coincides with "a worrying American policy, Britain being eclipsed by Brexit, and a certain withdrawal by Germany due to internal politics", said Bauchard.

But Stephane Malsagne, a Lebanon specialist at Paris's Sciences-Po university, said France was a relative "lightweight in the Lebanese political game, which is essentially driven today by Tehran and Riyadh".

Paris has "lost a lot of ground" as a weapons supplier to the Saudis and is awaiting financial support from Riyadh for the anti-jihadist military force that it is spearheading in Africa's Sahel, he said.

France's relationships in the region mean it can help to smooth tensions and limit the damage from the latest Saudi-Iranian power struggle, said Ziad Majed of the American University of Paris.

"But to find a sustainable solution and avoid the worst, it's much more up to Washington," said the French-Lebanese political analyst.