French am­bas­sador says CEDRE likely to suc­ceed

Cri­sis over Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion has­tened need to ad­dress state’s prob­lems, en­voy says

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - IN­TER­VIEW By Su­san­nah Walden

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.

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