Saad Hariri is back. The prime minister of Lebanon, who unexpectedly resigned his post in November in mysterious circumstances in Saudi Arabia, returned to Beirut last week, and this morning announced that he was revoking his resignation. The announcement came after a consensus agreement reached with rival political parties in the course of coalition talks, widely seen as a move to isolate Hezbollah from the current government. For this, he has made it clear that he has a person to thank: Emmanuel Macron, the president of France.
The announcement this morning was another strange moment in a month full of events for Lebanon. The cast of characters in the saga alone It would be a great opportunity for television: the new crown prince of the Saudi crown, Mohammed bin Salman, who supposedly orchestrated the resignation of Hariri to Riyadh, and proceeded to arrest some 500 people on corruption charges; Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and an internal ally of Hezbollah sponsored by Iran, who claimed that Hariri had been kidnapped by the Saudis; Hariri himself, a dual Lebanese Saudi citizen who went to Riyadh without notifying his own advisors and has a lot of business and personal ties to the Gulf kingdom; and, finally, Macron, who convinced Mohammed bin Salman to allow Hariri to come to France (where he remained at the official presidential residence for three days) and, last week, to return to Lebanon, ending a three-man showdown weeks the Saudis, the Lebanese and the Iranians.
– Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) November 18, 2017
Macron's decision to insert himself in this crisis surprised many. France, after all, is no longer the great power of the region, as it was before. But their motivations for doing so were rooted in a shared history, based on mutual economic and strategic interests. Lebanon was a French protectorate from 1920 to 1944 and retains strong economic, cultural and political ties with its former colonial power (French is the second language of Lebanon, after Arabic). Lebanon hosts a French military base and 900 French soldiers under the UN mandate. France is one of the main trading partners of Lebanon, and Lebanon is the largest beneficiary of French foreign aid in the region. Lebanon is also a crucial partner in the refugee crisis and the fight against the Islamic State. There are good reasons for Macron to be deeply involved in the stability of Lebanon.
For Hariri, Macron's backing gives his weakened government a lifeline. Burdened by an increasing public deficit, an unprecedented influx of refugees into the country and the Syrian civil war on its border, the Lebanese economy has worried analysts and provoked comparisons with that of Greece in 2009, on the brink of crisis of the eurozone. In September, after the visit of Lebanese President Michel Aoun to Paris, Macron undertook to organize two international conferences, one in support of the Lebanese army and the other for potential investors. He has also kept the promise of France (made by his predecessor, François Hollande) of € 100 million to help strengthen the Lebanese army in three years. Macron's support, in short, helps buy Hariri's legitimacy, both in Lebanon and internationally, at a time when his country has become a battlefield in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
– Saad Hariri (@saadhariri) November 18, 2017
What Macron stops supporting Hariri is perhaps less obvious, but crucial to understanding his policy towards the Middle East and North Africa region. Hakim El Karoui, an expert on Africa at the Paris-based Montaigne Institute, argued in a recent document that France should regain its historic role as a "stabilizing force" in the Middle East, including through mediating regional conflicts , as it has done in the past. "Macron has understood," he said. On Hariri's moving resignation in Saudi Arabia, Karoui said: "A few years ago, France would never have allowed this to happen."
By helping Hariri, and by mediating between the Saudis, the Lebanese and the Iranians, Macron also seems to take advantage of the seemingly American withdrawal from regional diplomacy. President Donald Trump has not yet nominated ambassadors to either Saudi Arabia or Lebanon. "A space was opened due to the absence of the United States," said El Karoui.
As for what France plans to do in this space, Macron gave some advice at a press conference last month. France, he said, would focus on "building peace" and avoid "interfering with national or regional divisions, or choose one side against the other." He warned that "where many would like to drag the Western powers into the growing opposition between Sunnis and Shiites," he would resist temptation.
But it is unclear how he plans to square off his desire to be a major player in the region with his aversion to involvement in sectarian battles, or even how he plans to convince the Middle East that he should welcome the return of France. The history of France in the region is not particularly good, and the presidents before him (most notably, Nicolas Sarkozy) have promised and have not been able to reform relations with the region. What makes Macron think he can do better?
In any case, the Hariri family might not be the best partner to start with. His relationship with the French presidency has been plagued by accusations of corruption and influence peddling since the 1990s. Rafiq Hariri, the father of Saad Hariri, was a businessman and prominent politician in Lebanon, who was assassinated in 2005, and had a close friendship with former French President Jacques Chirac. In 2007, at the end of Chirac's presidency, he and his wife moved into a € 4.4 million ($ 5.2 million) apartment allegedly loaned by the Hariri family, for a "temporary" stay that continues to our days. The French media, including Libération and Le Figaro, reported their close ties, and some claimed that Chirac's policy towards Lebanon was influenced by his friendship with Hariri. Both men repeatedly denied all allegations of irregularity, but rumors have resurfaced in the midst of this latest Lebanese crisis.
Macron has been very careful to show that, in this and other matters, he is different from his predecessors, stressing that he comes from a younger generation of politicians, not contaminated by previous scandals. Even so, it would be difficult for him to dodge this past completely with the appearance of a new Hariri on the French political scene.
Très sensible et reconnaissant au Président @ EmmanuelMacron et épouse Brigitte d & # 39; avoir invité ma femme Lara and us enfants Louloua et Abdelaziz à l'Élysée aujourd & # 39; hui. Merci pour ce geste d & # 39; amitié familiale. pic.twitter.com/f0IBXNpVoV
– Saad Hariri (@saadhariri) November 25, 2017
And Macron already has a Hariri scandal. When the construction company Hariris, Saudi Oger, went bankrupt in July 2017 and dismissed thousands of its employees, 240 French workers were fired and now claim approximately 20 million euros ($ 23.7 million) in back taxes and security Social. When asked about the matter in his recent interview, Hariri said: "They will be paid as soon as we receive the payment [by the Saudi government]."
But not everyone was convinced. Caroline Wasserman, the lawyer representing some 85 former employees of Saudi Oger in France, told me that "Hariri's attitude has been completely irresponsible … If Saudi Arabia pays him, it is not certain that he will then send the payments to his employees. , because I do not trust him to do it, "he said. She told me that the Elysée diplomatic arm approached her this week about the case, indicating that Macron is interested in finding a solution for the workers, a good time, since Hariri now owes him a favor (or two).
Macron won a major diplomatic victory in the Middle East when designing Hariri's return to Lebanon, but each victory comes at a cost. If you intend to fill the diplomatic space left by the United States in the region, it is likely that you will have many more opportunities to prove the mediation of conflicts, and like the United States, you will discover that great profits are rare.