French president Emmanuel Macron has been accused of trying to reconquer Lebanon rather than help it in the wake of the devastating explosion at its capital which killed 150 people.
It comes as the country is expected to refuse humanitarian aid from Israel because the two neighbours are technically still at war.
Visiting explosion-ravaged Beirut this week, France’s leader comforted distraught crowds, promised to rebuild the city and claimed that the blast pierced France’s own heart.
‘France will never let Lebanon go,’ Macron said. ‘The heart of the French people still beats to the pulse of Beirut.’
His critics have denounced his sentiments as a neocolonialist foray seeking to restore sway over a troubled Middle Eastern land.
And critics online have dubbed him Macron Bonaparte, a 21st century Emperor Napoleon.
Rubble from the devastating explosion in Beirut is seen while search and rescue operations continue
French president Emmanuel Macron has been accused of trying to reconquer Lebanon rather than help it in the wake of the devastating explosion at its capital
Visiting explosion-ravaged Beirut this week, France’s leader (pictured hugging a resident) comforted distraught crowds, promised to rebuild the city and claimed that the blast pierced France’s own heart
‘France will never let Lebanon go,’ Macron said. ‘The heart of the French people still beats to the pulse of Beirut’
Footage taken by a woman living near the warehouse showed thousands of sparks shooting into the air as plumes of black smoke rose above the port
Boris Johnson tells Lebanese president the UK will ‘stand by the country in its hour of need’
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun the UK will ‘stand by the country in its hour of need’ after the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port, Downing Street said.
A No 10 spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister spoke to President Aoun of Lebanon this morning to convey the UK’s deepest sympathies to the Lebanese people following Tuesday’s devastating explosion. He also passed on the sincere condolences of Her Majesty the Queen.
‘The Prime Minister reiterated the UK’s long-standing friendship with Lebanon and commitment to stand by the country in its hour of need.
‘The two leaders discussed the urgent humanitarian, medical and reconstruction needs following the blast at Beirut Port and President Aoun thanked the UK for the support provided to date, including the release of £5million in emergency funding and deployment of HMS Enterprise.
‘With Lebanon facing threats from a financial crisis, coronavirus and the effects of this tragic blast, they agreed to work with international partners to ensure the country’s long-term recovery and rehabilitation.’
But Macron’s defenders – including desperate Beirut residents who called him ‘our only hope’ – praised him for visiting gutted neighbourhoods where Lebanese leaders are scared to go, and for trying to hold Lebanon’s politicians accountable for the corruption and mismanagement blamed for Tuesday’s deadly blast.
Macron’s visit exposed France’s central challenge as it prepares to host an international donors conference for Lebanon on Sunday: How to help a country in crisis, where French economic ties run deep, without interfering in its internal affairs.
‘We are walking on the edge of a precipice. We have to aid, support and encourage the Lebanese people, but at the same time not give the impression that we want to establish a new protectorate, which would be completely stupid,’ said Jack Lang, a former French government minister who now heads the Arab World Institute in Paris.
‘We must find new, intelligent solutions to aid the Lebanese.’
France’s ties with Lebanon reach back at least to the 16th century, when the French monarchy negotiated with Ottoman rulers to protect Christians – and secure influence – in the region.
By the time of the 1920-1946 French mandate, Lebanon already had a network of French schools and French speakers that survives to this day – along with France’s cozy relationships with Lebanon’s power brokers, including some accused of fueling its political and economic crisis.
A surprising online petition emerged this week asking France to temporarily restore its mandate, saying Lebanon’s leaders have shown ‘total inability to secure and manage the country.’
It’s widely seen as an absurd idea – Macron himself told Beirut residents on Wednesday that ‘it’s up to you to write your history’ – but 60,000 people have signed it, including members of France’s 250,000-strong Lebanese diaspora and people in Lebanon who said it’s a way to express their desperation and distrust of the political class.
Aside from a show of much-needed international support, many in Lebanon viewed Macron’s visit as a way to secure financial assistance for a country wracked with debt.
Critics online have dubbed him Macron Bonaparte, a 21st century Emperor Napoleon
Warehouses full of goods including cars in the immediate area surround the blast were completely destroyed by the impact of the explosion the size of a small nuclear bomb
Anti-government protesters hurl stones at Lebanese riot police during a protest against the Lebanese politicians who have ruled the country for decades, outside of the Lebanese Parliament in downtown Beirut on Friday evening
People were out hurling stones at riot police outside Lebanese parliament ahead of a major protest planned in downtown Martyrs’ Square on Saturday
The French leader also managed to bring the divided political class together, if briefly. In a rare scene, the heads of Lebanon’s political factions – some of them still bitter enemies from the 1975-1990 civil war – appeared together at the Palais des Pins, the French embassy headquarters in Beirut, and filed out after meeting Macron.
But to many, the visit was seen as patronising. Some lashed out at the petition and those celebrating ‘France, the tender mother.’
One writer, Samer Frangieh, said Macron gathered the politicians as ‘schoolchildren,’ reprimanding them for failing to carry out their duties.
Damaged cars are seen at the site of Tuesday’s blast, at Beirut’s port area, Lebanon, August 7
Several firefighters tragically seen attempting to stop a fire at the port moments before the devastating explosion are believed to have died in the blast
The impact of the blast shook buildings, blew out windows for miles around and even threw cars metres into the air
A man picks through the ruins of blown-out buildings in central Beirut following a massive explosion at the city’s port
There were other, more subtle jabs against France’s show of influence. While Macron was touring neighborhoods torn apart by the explosion, the health minister in the Hezbollah-backed government toured field hospitals donated by Iran and Russia, major power players in the region.
Lebanon is expected to reject Israel’s offer of humanitarian aid as the country’s are technically still at war
Israel’s offer of humanitarian aid to Lebanon after the massive Beirut blast is unlikely to be accepted as the neighbours are technically still at war.
The two neighbours have no diplomatic ties and mutual suspicion and animosity defines their relations.
As Beirut reeled Tuesday after the devastating blast at the port ripped across the city, many eyes were on Israel.
The military initially offered a traditional ‘no comment’ to queries about the possible source of the explosion, until later a government source added: ‘Israel has nothing to do with this incident’.
Hours later the government offered humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
‘Israel has turned to Lebanon through international security and political contacts to offer humanitarian and medical aid to the Lebanese government,’ a statement said.
As Beirut hospitals became overwhelmed by the influx of thousands of injured, Lebanon’s government did not comment.
Aid has been streaming in from elsewhere, including from former power France and Iran, an ally of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and key Israeli rival.
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a 33-day war in the summer of 2006 that devastated parts of the Lebanese capital and killed hundreds.
Government and diplomatic sources in Jerusalem say Israel has tried unsuccessfully since Tuesday to send medical equipment to Lebanon via the United Nations, which monitors a buffer zone between the two countries.
Israel even sought to dispatch medical personnel to Cyprus, where Beirut victims could be treated, according to the sources.
‘It is a very human gesture,’ Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, told reporters. ‘It is a gesture that can bring the two nations together.’
In Beirut, many have bitter memories of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, its occupation of the country’s south until 2000 and the 2006 war that killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians.
The fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees stuck in Lebanon for decades after fleeing or being driven out of their homes in waves following Israel’s creation in 1948 is another thorny issue.
Traumatised by the blast that devastated their capital killing more than 150 people, injuring at least 5,000 and leaving some 300,000 homeless, the Lebanese paid little attention to Israel’s offer, other than to ridicule it.
‘Israel should stop exploiting this catastrophe to whitewash its crimes against Lebanon,’ one tweeted in English.
‘I get the people who want the mandate. They have no hope,’ said Leah, an engineering student in Beirut who did not want her last name published out of concern for political repercussions. She spoke out strongly against the idea, and against those who see Macron as Lebanon’s ‘savior.’
She said that risks worsening Lebanon’s divisions, as Maronite Christians and French-educated Muslims embrace Macron while others lean away. ‘He hasn’t resolved his issues with his country, with his people. How is he giving advice to us?’ she asked.
In Paris, Macron’s domestic political opponents from the far left to the far right warned the centrist leader against creeping neocolonialism, and extracting political concessions from Lebanon in exchange for aid. ‘Solidarity with Lebanon should be unconditional,’ tweeted Julien Bayou, head of the popular Greens party.
Macron himself firmly rejected the idea of reviving the French mandate.
‘You can’t ask me to substitute for your leaders. It’s not possible,’ he said. ‘There is no French solution.’
But he made a point of noting that he plans to return to Lebanon to verify that promised reforms are being undertaken on September 1, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of Greater Lebanon – and the beginning of French rule.
It comes as a three-member Lebanese parliamentary bloc resigned today in protest at the Beirut blast widely blamed on government negligence and corruption, bringing to five the number of MPs to quit since the disaster.
In an emotional speech during a funeral service for one of his top party officials who died in Tuesday’s blast, Samy Gemayel announced his resignation and that of the two other MPs from his Kataeb party.
‘Your comrades took the decision to resign from parliament,’ Gemayel said, addressing Kataeb secretary-general Nazar Najarian, one of the 154 confirmed victims of the explosion at Beirut port.
Gemayel criticised the reactions of several top politicians who argued the international aid effort following the disaster would be an opportunity to break the diplomatic isolation of Lebanon.
‘A new Lebanon must be born on the ruins of the old one, which you represent,’ he said, addressing the authorities at large and their clan leaders.
The Christian party’s three resignations from the 128-seat parliament come after those of Marwan Hamade from the party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and independent MP Paula Yacoubian.
Yacoubian told the CNN news channel that she was urging the entire parliament to stand down.
‘As the MP of Beirut, I took the decision of resigning because I feel I’m a false witness in this parliament,’ she said.
‘There’s nothing we can do, the decision-making is outside the parliament,’ she said. ‘Everyone should resign.’
Lebanon’s ambassador to Jordan also resigned in the aftermath of the blast, caused when fire spread to a depot where a huge amount of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years, unsecured.
Early evidence shows top officials knew of its presence at the port and that safety procedures were knowingly and repeatedly violated.
The government has promised a swift and thorough enquiry but public trust is low that an investigative committee chaired by top officials will uncover the real culprits.
The blast at Beirut, which was initially believed to have been sparked by a store of ammonium nitrate at the city’s port, has so far killed more than 150 people, left a further 5,000 wounded and more than 300,000 homeless.
Both figures are expected to rise as search and rescue efforts continue.