Emmanuel Macron has promised aid to blast-stricken Lebanon in a flying visit to Beirut, but warned there would be no blank cheque for leaders without reform.
Speaking at a news conference, the French President called for an international inquiry into the devastating explosion that generated a seismic shock felt across the region, saying it was an urgent signal to carry out anti-corruption reforms demanded by a furious population.
Macron, paying the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organise international aid but said the Government would have to implement economic reforms and curb corruption.
The French leader was swamped by angry citizens as he toured the devastated streets of the Lebanese capital today following the port explosion that killed 145 people.
In one powerful moment he stopped and offered a hug to a distraught woman furious the Government’s inaction.
‘You are sitting with warlords. They have been manipulating us for the past year,’ shouted the woman.
Macron, also wearing a mask, assured her he understood her concerns. ‘I’m not here to help them. I’m here to help you,’ he said.
Dozens are still missing after Tuesday’s explosion at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to 250,000 without habitable homes, hammering a nation already staggering from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases.
‘If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,’ Macron said after being met at the airport by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. ‘What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era.’
He told reporters later in Beirut that an audit was needed on the Lebanese central bank, among other urgent changes, and that the World Bank and United Nations would play a role in any Lebanese reforms.
‘If there is no audit of the central bank, in a few months there will be no more imports and then there will be lack of fuel and of food,’ said Macron.
France once governed Lebanon as a protectorate and maintains close ties with the small Middle-eastern country.
Earlier, wearing a black tie in mourning, Macron toured the blast site and Beirut’s shattered streets where angry crowds demanded an end to a ‘regime’ of Lebanese politicians they blame for corruption and dragging Lebanon into disaster.
‘I guarantee you, this (reconstruction) aid will not go to corrupt hands,’ Macron told the throngs who greeted him.
‘I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I´m here,’ he told one group, pledging to deliver ‘home truths’ to Lebanon’s leaders.
He told reporters later at the French ambassador’s residence, where a French general declared the creation of the state of Lebanon exactly 100 years ago, Macron said it was no longer up to France to tell Lebanese leaders what to do.
But he said he could apply ‘pressure’, adding: ‘This morning, many people told me, ‘Bring back the mandate’. In a way you are asking me to be the guarantor of the emergence of a democratic revolution,’ he said.
‘But a revolution cannot be invited, the people will decide. Do not ask France to not respect your sovereignty.’