BEIRUT: The departing French ambassador confirmed that the second installment of weapons for the Lebanese Army as part of the tripartite deal between Paris, Riyadh and Beirut will be delivered “in the next few weeks.”
Patrice Paoli also hinted that the French envoy tasked with solving the presidential deadlock won’t be making new trips to Beirut after he assumes a new post. Speaking to reporters during a news conference ahead of France’s Bastille Day, Paoli denied reports that the $3-billion deal for the Lebanese Army had been scrapped or even suspended. The deal was inked in November 2014 before the death of late Saudi monarch King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud.
“The deal is on,” he said. “There is a French and Saudi commitment that was reconfirmed by King Salman.”
Paoli revealed that the recent visit to Paris by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud had touched upon the massive arms deal to Lebanon.
He said the weapons deal “took time to be implemented” as it was a “new and complex operation” and highlighted that it was still ongoing under King Salman.
“There have been a lot of rumors. You know when there are new teams who take over, a tuneup is required,” he noted. “Nothing has stopped, quite the contrary; things are moving in the right direction.”
“I can clearly confirm, and without ambiguity, that the program to arm the Lebanese Army, which runs over several years, is ongoing normally,” the French envoy said. “The program has not stopped and the second installment should be delivered very soon in the weeks to come.”
Paoli said Lebanon’s stability was guaranteed by the Lebanese Army rather than an international agreement to keep Lebanon stable.
Paoli, who confirmed ongoing dialogue with Hezbollah and reiterated his criticism of the party’s intervention in Syria, highlighted that the use of force has to be done in the framework of state institutions.
“The Army and the official security forces are the only authorities allowed to use force in compliance with the policies of Lebanese state institutions.” He hailed the Saudi-French weapons agreement, saying it would allow the Lebanese Army “to possess all the means necessary to carry out its mission to serve the Lebanese people.”
“Today, the Lebanese Army does not have all the means to fulfill all those missions. This is why we are helping it and we have put in place an extremely important program to build its capabilities,” he said.
According to Paoli, change cannot happen overnight. “Over the next four or five years, the dimension of the Army’s abilities will qualitatively change.”
Paoli, who leaves Beirut next week to head the French Foreign Ministry’s Crisis Cell, will be replaced by Emmanuel Bonne, an adviser to French President Francois Hollande on the Middle East and North Africa.
Paoli said he leaves Lebanon with two main regrets: the presidential void and the inability to implement several projects in the country through grants from the French Agency for Development due to the ensuing institutional paralysis.
He said that Jean Francois Girault won’t be returning to Lebanon as he was appointed to a new post outside France. Paoli explained that the envoy’s inability to make breakthroughs regarding the Lebanese presidential impasse should not be seen as a “failure” of France, saying that his country played the role of the “facilitator” all along.
“Our role is not to make decisions; it’s for the Lebanese to make those decisions,” he said. “We have never imagined that we would [be able to] solve [the presidential crisis], although some of our Lebanese partners put high hopes on us.”
For Paoli, the key to solving the presidential deadlock was in large part an internal matter and lies in applying the Constitution. He added that the argument that external factors influence the presidential election “is just partly an excuse.”
“The Constitution has all the mechanisms to elect a president,” Paoli said. “Lawmakers should go [to Parliament] and vote. Full stop. They should make use of the existing mechanisms to elect a new president.”
Paoli hinted at what he referred to as “Lebanon fatigue” within the U.N. Security Council and the European Union. “Everyone does not have the same engagement as France vis-a-vis Lebanon.”
“We have never given up and we will not give up,” he said.
“We will stand by our Lebanese friends even if we do not have excessive expectations.”
The envoy said the paralysis that hit the Lebanese Parliament and public institutions as result of the presidential interregnum led to the cancellation of three grant packages for Lebanon by the French Agency for Development. In the absence of clear specifications and Parliament’s inability to ratify the grants, Paoli said a 46.5-million-euro grant to build new schools would be scrapped, just like a 70-million-euro grant for the electricity sector and 115 million euros for telecommunications were annulled in 2014.
Though Paoli renewed his country’s commitment to the Taif Accord, saying it constituted “a factor of balance and stability,” he expressed frustration with the incapacity of the Lebanese political machine to generate decisions for the collective interest.
“The Lebanese political system is not built to generate decisions and processes, it is rather built to allow [various factions] to gain more control,” he told reporters.
In light of France’s “serious worries” regarding the state of minorities in the Middle East, Paoli spoke about the need for various Lebanese factions to sit together and reach some sort of “pact” that would safeguard the rights of each of the communities.
“There isn’t a majority in Lebanon, there are several communities that have roughly the same size – there is a Christian bloc, a Shiite bloc and a Sunni bloc, in addition to the Druze and other minorities. They are forced to get along because none of the groups prevail,” Paoli said. “The groups can only protect themselves through a collective agreement, a sort of pact. This is the recipe for Lebanese stability.”