Flag of the state of Greater Lebanon Flag of the state of Greater Lebanon during the French mandate. Photo: public domain

Macron’s posturing as Lebanon’s saviour is deeply cynical, given the country’s colonial past and experience of neoliberal ‘reform’, argues Susan Ram

One month on from the colossal explosion that on August 4 devastated Beirut, leaving 200 people dead, thousands injured, and countless homes destroyed, Lebanon has now become a mega reconstruction project for global capitalism. All is on an epic scale, from eye-watering aid pledges and grandiose visions to generous helpings of piety and lofty sentiment. 

And who better to preside over it all than French President Emmanuel Macron? His hot-footed arrival in Beirut in the wake of the catastrophe; his passage through the debris to embrace dazed and angry citizens abandoned by their own government; his rhetoric-rich speechifying and stern admonitions: all cast him in the role of a deus ex machina, a ‘god from the machine’ who, appearing out of the sky, would punish the guilty, wipe away tears and put all to rights.

On streets named after French colonialists, Macron made grand pledges in front of rapturous crowds. “France will never let Lebanon go!” he declared. As for the Lebanese government,

“I call on them to take responsibility because it is time for them to act… I will give no blank checks to a system that no longer has the trust of its people.”

This is the sort of stagecraft Macron revels in. Back in France, where contempt for his pretensions, arrogance and reactionary political and economic programme continues to run high, by no stretch of the imagination could such a show be mounted. Performing before a shell-shocked audience in a former French colony whose government, economy and very existence are in meltdown is an altogether more enticing prospect.  

Taking control

That opening appearance amid the ruins of Beirut was just the prelude. It seems that Macron has taken it upon himself to organise and preside over the rebuilding not only of Beirut but also of Lebanon’s entire political and economic structure. 

On August 9, the French president took centre stage at a global aid-pledging conference, organised in conjunction with the UN and conducted online, in which 15 government leaders (Trump among them) promised 250 million euros in emergency aid for Lebanon. In a joint statement echoing concerns about Lebanese government corruption, would-be donors pledged that aid would be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency”. As USAID’s acting administrator John Barsa made clear in a conference call, the US contribution (some $15 million thus far) “is absolutely not going to the government.”

Then, at the start of September, Macron was back in Beirut again, to check the progress made thus far while encouraging fresh genuflections to France’s colonial presence in the Levant. The occasion was a centenary rich in symbolism: the declaration, on September 1, 1920, of French control over Lebanon and Syria as part of the Franco-British division of the Ottoman spoils in the wake of World War I. 

French-ruled Lebanon: ‘Christian civilisation’ in the Muslim Middle East

Lebanon was soon positioned as a beacon of France’s Mission civilisatrice (civilising mission). Formally given the mandate to govern by the League of Nations in 1923, France set about building a colonial presence in the eastern Mediterranean to rival Britain’s protectorate in Egypt. Central to the project was the claim that France was seeking a ‘home’ in Lebanon for Maronite Christians: adherents of the Maronite Church, an eastern Catholic formation dating back to the 4th century AD.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Lebanon in the annals of French colonial rule. Among those to serve there was a certain Charles de Gaulle, who occupied the post of General Staff of the Levant Troops from 1929-1931. 

During World War II, Lebanon was under Vichy fascist rule until 1942, after which it fell to Free French forces. Independence of sorts was contrived in 1943, its basis the parcelling out of legislative seats and government offices according to religious confession (always to the numerical advantage of Maronite Christians). 

France’s political legacy: corruption, instability and conflict

This system created a network of local confessional party bosses, the za’ims: power brokers who controlled the disbursement of offices while fattening themselves politically and financially. Resting on institutionalised tensions between a privileged Christian population and Lebanon’s growing Muslim demographic, the French-bequeathed political structure would also prove a recipe for catastrophic armed conflict. 

Between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon was ravaged by a complex sequence of brutalising conflicts, often presented as constituting a single civil war. A major contributory factor was the establishment of armed militias by the most powerful of the za’ims created by the French, and the resulting competition between them. Under the 1989 Taif Agreement which ended the war, quotas for parliamentary seats and executive offices were adjusted to reflect demographic changes since the days of the French mandate. 

As for the za’im system itself, it was left untouched.  

Neoliberal restructuring

In the wake of the civil war, Lebanon embarked on the path of economic liberalisation, with an emphasis on private sector growth and deeper integration into the global economy.

In practice, neoliberalism has served only to reinforce entrenched features of the Lebanese economy, specifically its lop-sided orientation to finance and services. Privatisation has proved a bonanza for political parties and the Lebanese bourgeoisie, whose domination of ministries has served to strengthen networks of patronage, nepotism and corruption. And the imposition of austerity conditions by international financial institutions in return for securing loans has contributed to Lebanon’s chronic debt and extraordinary levels of debt-induced corruption 

The fruits of neoliberal ‘reform’ are evident in Lebanon’s highly skewed wealth and in the fact that 75 per cent of the population is currently reliant on aid hand-outs. 

Macron’s shock doctrine

For Macron, there is no room for doubt, or genuine democratic involvement, in determining Lebanon’s needs. “We will not give Lebanon a carte-blanche, or a blank cheque,” he declaimed on September 1 during his most recent trip to Beirut. Speaking from the palatial French ambassador’s residence in Beirut (the very spot from which greater Lebanon had been proclaimed by colonial France a century earlier), he called for the formation of a united national government bringing together all the country’s dominant political forces. On cue, French embassy officials distributed “a draft programme for the new government” to the heads of political blocs. 

Beyond the admonitions and the finger wagging, Macron is well aware that such ‘reform’ can only help preserve Lebanon’s existing sectarian political system while clearing the way for further neoliberal restructuring. That, indeed, is the goal. 

The cynicism of Lebanon’s would-be saviour as he wrestles the roles of imperial potentate, colonial viceroy, and neoliberal evangelist appears boundless. 

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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