The French president’s casting of himself as the man to rebuild Lebanon underlines his self-confidence and ease with his country’s colonial past. JASON WALSH reports.
The dizzying complexity of France’s web of foreign entanglements was on full display during Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Beirut, just two days after the explosion which had devastated a swathe of the city. In remarkable scenes, the French president was mobbed by locals demanding political change as he walked the streets of Lebanon’s capital.
The symbolism was noteworthy: no Lebanese leader had yet dared show their face, let alone walk among the people, and yet here was a foreign leader – of the former colonial power no less – doing just that.
Indeed, Macron could scarcely walk the streets of Paris as easily as he did those of Beirut and his critics at home were quick to accuse him of posing as a foreign saviour with his swift visit to the stricken city.
Macron’s tone was no less remarkable. Speaking at a press conference, Macron made much of the need to avoid corruption in aid payments – music to the ears of many Lebanese, no doubt. But while saying it is not up to France to tell Lebanon’s leaders what to do, he openly called for, depending on how you decode it, either a change of attitude from the Lebanese government, or a change of government. ‘I hope that in the coming weeks we will see change’, he said, calling for a ‘new political order’. It didn’t take long: on Monday Lebanese PM Hassan Diab announced the entire cabinet was to resign.
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In the Q&A session during his visit Macron seemed to waver between calling for revolution and reform, while repeatedly saying it was neither his nor France’s job to decide Lebanon’s future.
It was fascinating stuff to watch from abroad: any British politician telling a former colony to, more or less, get its act together would be lucky to be met with scepticism and mockery.
The French president would likely not be so warmly welcomed everywhere – but he would hardly be chased out of even the most controversial of former colonies, either.
Indeed, a 2017 state visit to Algeria was a diplomatic success. A year later he acknowledged that France had committed torture during the Algerian War of Independence, singling out the case of mathematician and anti-colonial activist Maurice Audin, who was ‘disappeared’ in 1957.
It was an uncomfortable truth for the land that invented the concept of human rights, but one Macron has not been afraid to speak. Before becoming president, he called French colonialism a ‘crime against humanity’, resulting in jubilant and sulking newspaper editorials at home in equal measure. But as with all official apologies, history is not the true subject of the words being spoken.
Part of the reason for his 2017 visit was to seek Algerian support in quelling violence in neighbouring Libya, an enterprise in which France played a role: then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron were among those who pushed hardest for the 2011 military intervention that saw dictator Muammar Gaddafi toppled and killed, but the country descend into still ongoing violence.
But Macron did not only have a message of atonement. In another forthright piece of advice to former colonial subjects that it is difficult to see a British counterpart offering, he also told Algerians they should not look to past atrocities and should instead focus on the future. His words proved as controversial as his earlier ones accepting Gallic wrongdoing, but – as his recent visit to Lebanon proved – the president was clearly not put off the idea that former imperial powers should not be afraid to offer strong words of advice in lands they once ruled.
In sub-Saharan Africa, too, French influence continues to run deep, with post-colonial relationships which the president – like his predecessors – also appears to wear lightly.
Indeed, there is some truth to the idea that France views Africa as its pré carré or backyard, with Françafrique policies key to positioning itself as a major power.
Diplomatic ties are close and both investment and aid flow, but the details have often been controversial.
The nature of the country’s role in Rwanda’s civil war and subsequent genocide is famously murky, and France stands accused by the current government in Kigali of protected genocidaires.
The truth remains disputed and in 2019 Macron ordered an official inquiry, while this year researcher François Graner won a court battle to obtain access to the official archives of François Mitterrand, who was president at the time.
France has also been criticised for inaction in Cameroon. The country where France once waged war against the independence movement is in a state of near civil war, with the Francophone majority pitted against an Anglophone minority. Human rights organisations have complained that France has not done enough to stop abuses, claiming close business and military links between the two countries are at the root of inaction.
France does intervene in Africa, however. It is currently engaged in Operation Barkhane, a seemingly endless war against jihadists across the Sahel, with operations spanning Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. Last week, eight were killed in an assault on French aid workers.
Many in Europe seem only dimly aware of this conflict, and France has won little Western support or even interest – though there is a small British detachment.
Indeed, much of this flies under the radar for English speakers: reporting of metropolitan France is scanty enough, but outside of the likes of the BBC World Service or foreign pages of the broadsheets, much of the Francophone world goes close to ignored.
Though the governments of the Sahel nations support French intervention, accusations of neo-colonialism persist in France’s relations with African countries.
For decades it controlled two currencies, the Central African CFA Franc and West African CFA Franc, used in 14 nations. Critics say this makes virtual vassal states of the countries using them.
The West African CFA Franc is now to be re-named the Eco when late last year the eight countries using it abandoned a policy forcing them to keep 50% of their reserves in the French treasury. In May France agreed to the changes. It will remain pegged to the Euro, however.
Not all of France’s overseas engagements are controversial, though, and parts of its former empire are directly integrated with the mainland –albeit some more happily than others.
In October, the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia will hold an independence referendum, the result of which will be recognised by France’s government. Indeed, it is the second of three, with the first, which was won 56% to 44% by those who wished to remain part of France, being held in 2018, and the final scheduled for 2022.
The country has also been busy expanding the Francophonie, the Gallic answer to the Commonwealth. In truth the Francophonie, though, is small-fry. What really matters is power, and for Macron, whatever his immediate goals in visiting Lebanon, the international stage has proved a comfortable perch.
Macron is not the first French president to seek to stand astride the globe; though he displays an undoubted élan for it – for his predecessors much international activity was visible only in the Francophone world. This may seem like a handicap, but arguably it was to France’s advantage.
Algeria gaining independence in 1962 was a watershed. This was the high water mark of not only national self-determination movements but post-war recognition that colonialism had to end. And yet, even then, France continued to exert influence in its former possessions.
Successive French presidents have been at ease getting involved in Africa in particular, whether through economic and diplomatic initiatives, or military interventions. Typically this is presented as either selfless aid – former president François Hollande said France supported Africa because of its ‘great potential’ – or simple foreign relations between friendly states that share a common language. But it is quite obvious which state is in the more powerful position. France even intervened in support of the government in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony.
The power of the French language should not be discounted – 44% of French speakers live in Africa – and business ties are real, too. French industries, not only oil companies but even retail banks and supermarkets, are widespread. But these ties typically lead back to two key facts: firstly, since decolonisation France has worked to maintain relations with its former colonies. Secondly, much of the rest of the world simply pays little attention.
Part of the reason for French interest in Africa is to win votes at the UN and international support in general, but when it comes to high profile gestures, whether in former colonies or on the international stage in general, the real audience is at home.
For Macron today, the pressure to renounce his liberal economic reform plans is immense in the face of a looming recession – French GDP fell by 13.8% in the second quarter of this year – and so, facing an election in 2022, he is in dire need of any fillip he can get.
Prior to the pandemic, French unemployment fell to 7.8%; decent by recent standards, but still high. The central bank predicts it will now hit 23.3%. Public debt is expected to reach 120% of GDP and key French industries such as tourism, luxury goods, aerospace manufacturing and culture and entertainment, are among the worst hit by the Covid crisis.
For the moment there are no serious challengers, though a deep recession could change that, whether in the form of a resurgent Marine Le Pen or, indeed, a Macron-like insurgent apparently appearing from nowhere.
In beefing-up France’s profile abroad Macron is hoping to restore some national pride, something that can be seen in many of his actions. His ability to twist Angela Merkel’s arm into supporting a bloc-wide pandemic aid programme has made him the effective leader of the EU, while US president Donald Trump’s lack of gravitas has left a vacuum in geopolitics, or at least the theatre of geopolitics, he has been happy to attempt to fill.
Whether diplomatic actions win elections back home is another question – though they can certainly help lose them – and in Lebanon Macron may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Feted he may be – the Lebanese certainly seem united in the desire for change – but this unity is unlikely to last, and no French leader could ever prove to be a rallying point for a divided and sectarian society where communal jockeying for power is written into the constitution. In Beirut, Macron proposed ‘a new pact’, but whether any plan could safely break Lebanon’s, quite intentional, sectarian deadlock is unclear.
Indeed, French ties to Lebanon are stronger among Maronite Christians than with either Sunni or Shi’a Muslims, and Macron, far from reforming the country’s confessional politics, may well end up standing accused of favouring one side over the others.
How he deals with the Iran-backed Hezbollah, too, may prove controversial with the United States and others. Meanwhile, another former French colony borders Lebanon, one in an even more parlous state, and with great potential for infectious instability: Syria.