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French FM visits ailing Lebanon with message of ‘great firmness’

Jean-Yves Le Drian says Paris’s measures against ruling class’s corruption are just the beginning, amid efforts to save country from economic, political crises

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, left, meets with Lebanese President Michel Aoun at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, left, meets with Lebanese President Michel Aoun at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — France’s foreign minister heralded a visit to Lebanon on Thursday with a message of “great firmness” to its political leaders, threatening to take additional measures against officials obstructing the formation of a government in the crisis-hit country.

Tweeting ahead of his arrival, Jean-Yves Le Drian said French travel restrictions on Lebanese officials suspected of corruption or hindering the formation of a new Cabinet were “just the start.”

France has been trying to force change on Lebanon’s ruling class, whose corruption and mismanagement has driven the small country into the ground and pushed it to the verge of bankruptcy. The country is experiencing the worst economic and financial crisis of its modern history. The local currency has lost 85 percent of its value against the dollar in recent months while banks imposed informal controls on transfers and withdrawals.

The economic crisis was made worse by a massive explosion at Beirut’s port last summer, which destroyed the facility and surrounding neighborhoods. The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepped down in the wake of the explosion, and former premier Saad Hariri was tasked with forming a new one.

Smoke rises after an explosion the day before at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Hariri has not been able to form a Cabinet amid deep disagreements between him and President Michel Aoun, who has no legal recourse to fire him. The deadlock is accelerating the country’s meltdown.

“I will be in Lebanon tomorrow with a message of great firmness to political leaders and a message of our complete solidarity to the Lebanese,” Le Drian posted Thursday. “Firmness in the face of those hindering the formation of a government: we have taken national action, and this is just the start.”

Last week, Le Drian said France will start to put in place measures restricting access to French territory for people implicated in the political blockage underway, or implicated in corruption in Lebanon.

He did not name any of those targeted or say how many. The Foreign Ministry did not release details of what the restrictions entail.

The move stops short of sanctions for now, but Le Drian said more could come later.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a road map to break the political stalemate in the former French protectorate. Macron, who has previously said he is “ashamed” of Lebanese politicians, has been pressing for a Cabinet made up of non-partisan specialists who can work on urgent reforms to extract Lebanon from its multiple crises.

Those efforts have led nowhere as Lebanese top officials continue to bicker about the shape and size of a new Cabinet, and who chooses which ministers.

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