BEIRUT: French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Lebanon has been postponed until at least the second half of 2019 due to the delay in the Cabinet formation and political developments in Paris, French Ambassador to Lebanon Bruno Foucher said Tuesday.
Foucher spoke to Daily Star reporters during a visit to the newspaper’s offices about the formation of the Cabinet and urged the new government to prioritize the reforms that would allow Lebanon to tap into the over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged at the CEDRE conference in Paris in April.
“[The government] has no choice - if it doesn’t make the reforms, it will not get the money,” he said.
Macron’s visit was originally slated for April of last year, after CEDRE, before being postponed to a tentative date in mid-February this year. However, the absence of a Lebanese government, formed last week after more than eight months of political wrangling over ministerial allocations, forced a delay of Macron’s much anticipated visit.
“We told our Lebanese colleagues ... that a presidential visit needs two months of preparation. On Dec. 15 there was no government, so we pushed the deadline to Jan. 15. There was still no government then, so we felt it was preferable to defer the visit.”
The ambassador made clear that Macron’s visit to Lebanon had not been the only one to be postponed.
Foucher said Macron also did not make planned trips to Iraq and Jordan, and that politics in his own country had contributed to the decision not to travel.
France’s long-standing ties to Lebanon have been at the fore over the past year since the CEDRE conference. Lebanon has not been able to act on the development program it presented at the conference or tap into the pledges made to support the plan because of last May’s parliamentary elections and then the lack of a Cabinet.
Foucher reiterated that Lebanon would not be able to move forward with projects presented at CEDRE without enacting economic reforms. “We consider that Lebanon has accepted the principle of making reforms. We are past the stage of discussing this,” he said.
“Before perhaps you could say, ‘There is no government, we cannot conduct these reforms.’ But now that there is a government, these are the first things that should be done,” he added.
The need for Lebanon to implement both “light” reforms that can be undertaken relatively quickly and “heavier” fiscal reforms to access the pledged funds and grants was a hallmark of CEDRE and set it apart from the Paris I, II and III donor conferences that provided aid to Lebanon.
Earlier Tuesday, Foucher met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The two spoke about the inclusion of straightforward reforms, including those regarding regulatory authorities, in the Cabinet statement being debated in committee.
The government’s policy statement is the basis on which Cabinet will seek a vote of confidence from Parliament, and is expected to highlight the CEDRE reforms as well as other key issues.
“We will see in the coming days if these smaller [financial] reforms are mentioned - and the prime minister told me they will be - in the Cabinet statement,” Foucher said.
Hariri and other Lebanese officials vowed in the days after the Cabinet announcement that they would tackle the economic situation in the country and push forward with reforms to stave off a crisis.
Lebanon is one of the most indebted countries in the world, with an estimated 150 percent debt-to-GDP ratio. Among the heftier reforms Foucher underlined was the need to reduce the deficit by 1 percent a year.He added that he has repeatedly told Hariri the Lebanese people “do not believe in CEDRE” because of the lack of significant change after Paris I, II and III. “To convince the Lebanese that CEDRE is different,” he said, “[the projects of] CEDRE must work with priority on issues that affect all Lebanese,” in particular electricity provision and waste management.
The state-run Electricite du Liban represents 40 percent of the deficit, or $45 billion. Reforming this sector is also a matter of transparency, Foucher said, “for reasons that you are aware of.”
The Cabinet statement is expected to touch on several other issues that are contentious, among them the question of Hezbollah’s weapons.
France, like much of Europe but unlike the United States, distinguishes between the political and the armed branches of Hezbollah and engages with the political wing.
“They [the U.S.] consider it a terrorist organization, and we say they have [separate] military and political wings. But we are against their armed militia,” Foucher said. He advocated for renewing strategic dialogue with Hezbollah over its arms, admitting that Lebanon could do little by itself to rein in weapons not under state control.
“We know that Lebanon has limited means to deal with Hezbollah’s arms, but the first step is to sit down and have a dialogue - come up with a national defense strategy.” He added that France would be watching to see whether coming up with a such a comprehensive strategy would be included in the new government’s policy statement.
Foucher also said France was against Hezbollah’s separate foreign policy from the Lebanese state’s on Iraq, Syria and Yemen, in an apparent reference to Hezbollah’s guerrilla army taking part in the foreign battles.
As for the group’s participation in Lebanon’s government or politics in general, the French ambassador said his country had “no problem” with Hezbollah’s participation. Paris did not want to intervene in Lebanon’s political process, he said.
“I meet with [Hezbollah officials] quite regularly, they told me they had made a strategic decision ... to respond to the demands of their electorate, particularly in the Bekaa,” Foucher added.
International reactions to the Cabinet formation focused on Hezbollah obtaining three ministries for the first time, and in particular the Health Ministry, which has the third-largest budget of the government. Hezbollah responded to these concerns by naming a health minister, Jamil Jabak, who is not a member of the party, though he is affiliated with it.
Foucher gave little credence to the U.S.-driven fear that Hezbollah would exploit the ministry’s funds.
“We work and will continue to work with the ministry, and we will be vigilant,” the diplomat said regarding the way funds are used in the ministry.
Foucher noted that a number of professionals were brought in for meetings and studies that showed it would be very difficult for Hezbollah to misuse the funds for its own agendas.