BEIRUT: French President Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to a traumatized Lebanon, Thursday said he we would seek a new deal with political authorities, after a catastrophic blast ripped through the city, killing over 145 and injuring over 5,000.
Walking down Beirut’s Gemmayze, one of the most impacted neighborhoods of the city, Macron was greeted by crowds of Lebanese calling for the removal of the political class who have thus far given very little understanding of the massive explosion.
"I guarantee you this – aid will not go to corrupt hands," Macron told protesters two days after the city was devastated by a blast.
"I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new contract. I am here today to propose a new political contract to them," he said, after being greeted by crowds calling for an end to the "regime.”
Hundreds of Lebanese had crowded the president in Gemmayze, chanting "revolution," and calling for the removal of the political class.
During a tour of the destruction, Macron offered a woman a hug. “I’m not here to help them. I’m here to help you,” he said to her.
Public anger has mounted over the explosion, caused by an inordinate amount of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a portside warehouse since 2014 in unsafe conditions. Authorities have not explained who was responsible and the exact circumstances around the explosion that destroyed neighborhoods and businesses across the city.
Many have taken this as further evidence of the incompetence and negligence of a government that has already driven the country to the brink of economic collapse.
“I lost everything. I have nothing left to lose, so I’ll stand here until every single one of the [politicians] is gone,” said a man to local media in a televised interview.
“It’s shameful that the French president has come here to greet us and our own leaders haven’t said a word, they haven’t even looked at us,” another woman said.
FRENCH AID DIRECTLY TO NGOs
Macron, in a speech after a meeting with officials, said that aid that France and the EU would provide would be directed exclusively to the Lebanese people, NGOs and teams working on the ground. The move is seen as an attempt to sideline politicians seen by the public as corrupt and as having squandered funds.
Speaking to journalists Macon said that an aid conference would be held "in the coming days."
He said the aid would go "directly to the people, the relief organizations and the teams that need it on the ground."
Macron said that if leaders did not uphold their responsibilities, he “will be back on the first of September and if they can’t do it, I will keep my responsibility toward you.”
Macron earlier in the day went to the presidential palace where he met with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Speaker Nabih Berri.
After the meeting, Macron he said that strong political measures would be needed to fight corruption and implement reforms in Lebanon, calling for the implementation of a more transparent banking system.
Aoun asked Macron for aerial photos of the moment of the explosion port, the state-run National News Agency reported. The French president promised to secure them as soon as possible.
The French president said that Lebanon was facing a “political, moral, economic and financial crisis” that required urgent reforms, and that he would engage the political authorities in “a dialogue of truths” surrounding the Beirut blast and the multiple crises facing the country.
He indicated that France was keen to play logistical and supporting role in the investigation into the blast, and that he would organize "in the next few days support on the French and European levels."
France is willing to coordinate between international donors and relief organizations following the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that flattened large parts of the city. He said that actions could be taken within hours, pending further information "from the people on the ground and the authorities."
“The Lebanese people are the ones who have need” for aid, he said, suggesting that direct financial assistance to Lebanon – one of the most corrupt countries in the world – was not immediately on the cards.
“We will not abandon you,” Macron said, addressing the Lebanese people. He emphasized multiple times France’s “fraternal solidarity” with the Lebanese.
In addition to meeting with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab, Macron indicated that he would be meeting with civil society groups to hear their ideas for solutions to the country’s crises, and where they feel foreign support should be directed.
France sent three planes to Beirut loaded with rescuers Wednesday, medical equipment and a mobile clinic.
Two military planes left Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris with 55 search and rescue personnel on board and 25 tons of medical supplies.
A third plane, provided by the chief executive of shipping giant CMA-CGM Rodolphe Saade who is of Lebanese origin, took off from Marseille with medical equipment and a nine-strong medical team.
CLEANING UP THE MESS
Losses from the blast were estimated be between $10 billion to $15 billion, according to Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud. Nearly 300,000 people are homeless, Abboud estimated.
Lebanese across the city’s capital came together to help clean up the rubble and glass from demolished buildings. Neighbors helped one another unearth belongings from underneath debris.
Community initiatives have set up temporary shelters for those who lost their homes during the explosion.
In the Karantina district, which overlaps with the port area, homes were reduced to rubble. Standing among battered buildings in the area, the Elmir family gathered around where their home once stood. The entire wall of the left-hand-side of the two-story home had collapsed.
Jonny Elmir told The Daily Star that volunteers had arrived earlier Thursday offering food, a place to stay and promising help with the reconstruction of the house
“My family is desperate, they’ve lost faith in Lebanon and in the government,” Elmir said.
Looking around at his neighbors’ fallen homes as families and residents cleared the streets, Johnny pointed at a flat 10 meters away. “There was a 65 old lady who lived there, she was lost beneath the stones, she’s dead now.”
Dozens are still missing. The Army in a televised statement said it would intensify the search for missing people in cooperation with the Lebanese Red Cross. The Army said it had asked the families of those who are missing to come forward for DNA tests to help with the process.