PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Friday Lebanon’s new prime minister at the presidential palace, wishing him success and promising France would continue to support the crisis-struck country. In Beirut, protesters pelted commercial banks with eggs and rallied against the political class for obstructing the probe into last year’s devastating port blast.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati is on his first foreign trip after taking office, days after his government was confirmed by parliament — a move that ended a 13-month deadlock that came as Lebanon is struggling with an economic meltdown and rising poverty.
“You have an immense and historic responsibility," Macron told Mikati during a joint press conference at the Elysee. "We will do everything to help you succeed.”
Throughout Lebanon's crisis, France had taken the lead among the international community in helping the small Mideast country, a former French protectorate. Paris has hosted aid conferences and pushed for reform, and last year, Macron presented Lebanese politicians with a road map for policy change and reforms and scolded them for failing to form a government. But his hands-on approach failed to expedite government formation or bring about major change.
On Friday, Macron said Lebanon faces a “humanitarian emergency” and promised France would help in efforts to “mobilize the international community to respond to the most urgent needs.”
“We have an opportunity to advance concretely on the path of reforms,” Macron said, adding that international support can provide more help once energy and public finance sector reforms are launched.
“The path is arduous and the task is difficult,” Macron said. “We are here. France will remain at the side of the Lebanese people.”
Mikati's government is expected to undertake critically needed reforms while grappling with rising public anger and tensions resulting from the deepening hardships. He said he will be counting on France’s support during talks with the International Monetary Fund to negotiate a recovery package, a priority for the new Cabinet.
“I assured Mr. president of my determination to implement as soon as possible — with my government and with the support of the president of the republic, Michel Aoun, and with the support of the parliament — the necessary and imminent reforms to regain confidence and give back hope to reduce the suffering of the Lebanese people," Mikati said, speaking in French.
Mikati has said he would lift subsidies by the end of September as Lebanese foreign reserves run dangerously low and the central bank can no longer support its $6 billion subsidy program.
A billionaire businessman and one of the richest men in Lebanon — and now a third-time prime minister — Mikati is widely seen as part of the entrenched political elite. Few believe he can chart a path for reform with a government that leaves power in the hands of the same political parties the public blames for corruption and mismanagement of Lebanon’s resources.
Dozens of Lebanese protested outside several private banks in central Beirut on Friday, demanding access to their hard currency deposits that have been de facto locked since the financial and economic crisis unfolded in late 2019. The protesters hurled eggs and tomatoes at the bank buildings, prompting angry bank employees to shout at them and Lebanese security forces pushed the crowd back.
Private banks have imposed informal capital controls, limiting withdrawals, transfers and effectively preventing access to foreign currency accounts. The national currency has since been in a free fall, losing more than 90% of its value.
Underlining one of the first hurdles facing Mikati's government, families of the victims of the massive August 2020 explosion at Beirut's port decried on Friday what they say is continued political interference in the domestic probe looking into what caused the blast and bringing those responsible to justice.
In a statement, they called for international protection for the lead judge in the investigation, Tarek Bitar, suggesting his life and that of his family may be in danger following reported threats.
“Covering up the truth of the port explosion will be dangerous for the unity of Lebanon,” it said.
One of the key demands of both the international community and Lebanese campaigning for reforms has been the independence of Lebanon’s judiciary and accountability for corruption and political violence. French prosecutors have opened investigation into money-laundering allegations against Lebanon's central bank governor.
Lebanese media recently revealed that Bitar had received threats, purportedly from senior members of the powerful militant Hezbollah group who are allegedly getting impatient with the course of the investigation and threatening to remove him.
After the leak, Bitar reported the threat to prosecutors. Hezbollah has not commented on the threat but the leader of the Iran-backed group had in the past criticized Bitar for an allegedly “politicized” investigation. No Hezbollah member has been implicated in the investigation and its concerns with the probe are unclear.
Meanwhile, two former ministers accused of intentional negligence that led to the port explosion, have asked the country’s highest court to replace Bitar, the second judge to lead the complicated and thorny investigation. The first was removed earlier this year after similar challenges in court.
El Deeb reported from Beirut.