French ambassador says CEDRE likely to succeed
Crisis over Hariri’s resignation hastened need to address state’s problems, envoy says
BEIRUT: With Paris set to host a conference that marks a significant opportunity for Lebanon to hoist itself out of an economic slump and rebuild its battered infrastructure, French Ambassador Bruno Foucher struck an optimistic tone as he sat down with The Daily Star.
“I think this conference will be a success,” Foucher said, noting that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should be among the 50 or so countries and international organizations that will gather in support of Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure at the CEDRE conference on April 6. “They are expected to make announcements that are not negligible. This is encouraging. And I know that other countries will also make announcements.”
Among them is France, which the ambassador said would “of course” contribute. “We will make an announcement, a fairly important one,” he said.
It is another example of France’s long-standing support for Lebanon, stemming from deep historic ties.
It was France’s President Emmanuel Macron who was instrumental in ending the crisis in November sparked by Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s shock announcement he was stepping down while in Riyadh, and the subsequent 13 days he remained in Saudi Arabia with limited contact with Lebanese officials.
And it was Foucher himself who delivered letters from Macron to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, inviting them to attend the conferences in support of Lebanon.
Foucher said the crisis “hastened the need to find answers ... [to the] big questions that dominate the country today,” namely, “building a strong state, reviving the economy and addressing the question of the [Syrian] refugees.”
Paris will address the second of these questions, with the Rome II conference, held in mid March to bolster support for Lebanon’s security agencies, and the Brussels II conference on April 24-25 garnering support for Syrian refugees and the countries hosting them.
“The goal [of the three conferences] is simple enough: that the Lebanese state has withstood regional crises, political crises and financial crises but it remains a fragile state. And to make it less fragile we had to provide answers for these major concerns,” Foucher said.
Saudi Arabia also attended the Rome conference, where they offered political support for the security strategies presented by Lebanon for the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces, but did not yet announce any financial support.
Their presence alleviated some concerns for the international community. “During the crisis, we thought that there could be a longterm problem between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia,” Foucher said. Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, had accused Saudi Arabia of holding the prime minister against his will. But this has been overcome, Foucher said, a state of affairs reaffirmed by the Saudi involvement at the conferences.
The crisis caused by Hariri’s resignation also led to the reaffirmation of the international community’s support for Lebanon’s security, stability and sovereignty, with an emphasis on a policy of dissociation from regional conflicts, reaffirmed by Cabinet on Dec. 5 last year in exchange for Hariri rescinding his resignation.
Foucher emphasized the need for the Lebanese government to remain committed to the policy. “It’s a governmental line that was adopted on Dec. 5 in the Cabinet and everyone must respect it. When I say everyone, it’s really everyone . ... I myself have repeated this message several times to the authorities.”
France, unlike the U.S., is among the Western nations that differentiates Hezbollah’s political and military wings and maintains open channels with the political element.
“We speak with the political branch because we think that Hezbollah is a political party like the others. This gives legitimacy to the part of the population that votes for them,” Foucher said. “I say to them simply, ‘there is a policy of dissociation, you apply it like everyone and you tell me you are in favor of it, so, therefore, you have nothing to do with Iraq, nothing to do with Syria and nothing to with Yemen and I can understand you have contributed in certain instances when the jihadists have penetrated Lebanese territory, but it’s the role of the Army to drive this task of [protecting the state’s] sovereignty. And I think it’s necessary to speak to them and consider them like a Lebanese party ... whose interests are strictly Lebanese.”
CEDRE has been clearly differentiated from the previous Paris conferences (held in 2001, 2002 and 2007) in that it is for investment and project funding, not budget support, and, crucially, there is a mechanism for follow-up beyond April 6.
“CEDRE, it’s a process, I know we say that all the time but it really is,” Foucher said. “There’s an obligation to succeed because it’s not a closed circle.”
Foucher noted that with CEDRE reforms are anticipated before the conference: “We always told the Lebanese authorities that we would like to see that certain points are resolved before the conference and then they can work on the other points afterward.”
He said many of these points are files that are already with the Parliament but have been long awaiting ratification. “It’s entirely due to bureaucracy,” he said, but added that there is political will to move forward because “if the laws are not adopted then the projects will not go ahead, it’s that simple. This is the difference between CEDRE and Paris III. We are not giving first to then find that they did not follow through.”
The set of reforms on the docket for before CEDRE and before the elections are no small task, but they are easier in comparison to what needs to happen after the May parliamentary elections – Lebanon’s first in nine years.
“After the elections, there are other reforms to lead on that are difficult because they touch on public finance, investment and governance,” Foucher said. “There’s a kind of moral contract that was signed between the Lebanese government and the population because [CEDRE] is before the elections.”
Whatever the outcome of the conference or the elections, France will remain a firm Lebanon supporter.
Macron himself will attend part of the CEDRE conference and will visit Lebanon this year and sign, Foucher said, a “very ambitious ... roadmap” to develop French language and Francophone cultural links and projects.
Foucher says dissociation also applies to Hezbollah.