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Rudderless Lebanon heading for the rocks: French envoy
French Ambassador to Lebanon Patrice Paoli speaks during an interview with The Daily Star in Beirut, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
French Ambassador to Lebanon Patrice Paoli speaks during an interview with The Daily Star in Beirut, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
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BEIRUT: French Ambassador Patrice Paoli does not hide his frustration with the situation in Lebanon in light of the protracted political stalemate and the Syria spillover, comparing the country to a ship heading toward the rocks.

“So in Lebanon you’re on a boat, this boat is heading right to the rocks and nobody seems to be able to do anything,” the veteran diplomat lamented. “We’re in a situation where nobody can or wants to take up responsibility.”

In an interview with The Daily Star Monday, Paoli suggested that if given a choice between “total chaos” engulfing Lebanon and the extension of President Michel Sleiman’s term, France would endorse the prolongation option.

“It’s not our business but if you tell me total chaos or keeping the president, I’ll tell you nobody wants total chaos,” Paoli said.

“It depends how you put the question ... If it’s Sleiman vs. an election that pits two serious candidates, for example,” that’s another story, he said.

Paoli, who dismissed reports that Sleiman had discussed the extension of his mandate with French President Francois Hollande, said his country did not currently have a preferred candidate for the upcoming presidential elections of May 2014.

France’s blessings have been essential to the smooth functioning of the mandates of various presidents since Lebanon’s independence in 1943.

Paolo also underlined the need to respect constitutional deadlines.

Although the ambassador argued that political compromises were not always a healthy sign of democratic life as they did not provide long-term solutions to problems, he admitted that in Lebanon compromises had generally constituted the way out of the country’s recurring political crises.

Ideally speaking, Paoli said, France would like to see a “real [presidential] election” taking place in Lebanon that pits candidates from each side of the political divide.

“It would be good for Lebanon to have [a president] who is fully empowered, someone who clearly represents a collective choice,” he said. “If this is achieved through consensus, then why not?”

The French ambassador also reiterated his calls for a new functional Cabinet to be formed to help Lebanon deal with the many challenges looming on the horizon, chief among them the Syrian refugee crisis.

Paoli highlighted his country’s commitment to help Lebanon manage the refugee crisis and its keenness to support the country’s host communities.He revealed the French Agency for Development had 190 million euros allotted for Lebanon to serve the needs of refugees and host communities. “But this big amount of money is frozen, it is stuck, paralyzed in the absence of a government that refers agreements to Parliament for ratification,” he added.

Paoli blamed various Lebanese factions for lacking the will to form a Cabinet, saying that the essence of the problem lay in a lack of confidence and the absence of any form of dialogue among rival groups.

Paoli denied reports that France was planning a meeting in the near future – similar to the one that took place in La Celle-Saint-Cloud in 2007 – that would bring together Lebanese politicians to find a solution to the deadlock. Conditions for holding such a gathering in France were not ripe at the moment, he said.

“To organize such meetings you need a minimal [set] of common denominators and these are lacking for the time being.”

Paoli, however, divulged that Paris wanted to reach out to the sponsors of rival Lebanese camps – Saudi Arabia and Iran – to urge them to place pressure on their allies in Lebanon to soften their stances regarding problematic issues.

“The Saudis and the Iranians are clearly in a confrontation, but why should Lebanon pay the price?” Paoli asked. “What we say to our friends in the region and elsewhere is that Lebanon is already paying a big price – in terms of the influx of refugees, the economic crisis and the security situation – don’t make it pay an even bigger price.”

The diplomat also expressed serious worries about the security situation in Lebanon in light of this summer’s numerous bombings, November’s suicide attacks against the Iranian Embassy and the weekend’s assault on Lebanese Army checkpoints in Sidon.

Paoli said he feared that now that suicide bombers had become part of the equation this “disseminates terror and danger.”

He warned that the country was slowly but surely heading toward a serious degradation of its security situation and praised as “incredible” the Lebanese Army’s role in containing security flare-ups.

He maintained, however, that in order for the Army to successfully pursue its mission, some kind of “political support and orientation are needed.”

“In the absence of [political leadership], the Army becomes stuck in a position, whereby it becomes a target,” he added.

Paoli pledged increased support and grants for the military and urged foreign and regional players to follow suit: “We are always ready to do more bit we cannot do everything on our own.”

Paoli, who confirmed France’s engagement to maintaining dialogue with Hezbollah’s so-called political wing, argued that neither the new detente between the United States and Iran nor the upcoming Geneva II conference would have an immediate effect on Lebanon.

“The only way the nuclear deal with Iran can have an effect on Lebanon would be that it would open the way for rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he said. “Engaging in some sort of dialogue is a necessity for the region.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 17, 2013, on page 1.
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