France’s top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian scolded Lebanon’s leadership Thursday for failing to take the measures he said are necessary to save the country from collapse.
Lebanon is in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, marked by a steep decline in the value of the currency and runaway inflation that have plunged nearly half of the population into poverty.
Le Drian, on the first such visit of a top foreign politician in months, made no secret of his exasperation with a leadership he described as “passive”.
“Concrete actions have been expected for too long,” Le Drian said, in a statement to the press after meeting his counterpart Nassif Hitti.
The free-falling economy has sparked mass protests since October against a political class accused of being incompetent and corrupt. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs or part of their income.
After the country defaulted on its debt for the first time in March, the government pledged reforms and two months ago started talks with the International Monetary Fund.
But the negotiations have hit a wall, with two top members of the government’s own team resigning, allegedly in frustration at the administration’s lack of commitment to reform.
“There is no alternative to an IMF programme to allow Lebanon to exit the crisis,” Le Drian warned.
Lebanon’s government says it needs more than $20 billion in external funding, which includes $11 billion pledged by donors at a Paris conference in 2018 that was never delivered over lack of reforms.
Analysts say a deal with the IMF is key to unlocking any further aid.
“France is ready to fully mobilise at Lebanon’s side and to mobilise all its partners, but for that serious and credible recovery measures have to be implemented,” the French minister said.
He singled out as an example the loss-making electricity sector, where reforms have been dragging for years.
“I can say clearly that what has been done until now in this field is not encouraging,” he said.
Le Drian met Prime Minister Hassan Diab, President Michel Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri in the morning.
But his patience was clearly wearing thin as he dished out more criticism during an afternoon visit to Amel, a charity in southern Beirut that helps some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable.
“I was reading in Lebanese newspapers that Lebanon was waiting for Le Drian. No, it’s France that’s waiting for Lebanon,” he said.
“What is striking to us is how passive the authorities of this country are,” Le Drian said during a conversation with the head of Amel about soaring poverty levels.
Le Drian’s uncompromising tone echoed an appeal he made in the French senate earlier this month and which was widely reported in Lebanon: “Help us help you, dammit.”
“I said dammit the other day in the Senate so I wouldn’t have to use a swear word. It was an affectionate word but it came with a dose of anger,” he said.
Dozens of businesses are closing down permanently every day, thousands of people are losing their jobs or suffering massive pay cuts and the suicides of citizens submerged by debt have shocked the nation.
Lebanon is burdened by sovereign debt equivalent to 170 percent of its GDP.
Most traffic lights have stopped working in Beirut, electricity is becoming scarce and a growing number of Lebanese are looking for ways to leave the country.
The slow motion collapse of a state that will celebrate its centenary in just over a month has sparked warnings that sectarian violence could return.
Le Drian said that the rest of Lebanon’s international partners were on the same page, as was the protest movement that emerged last year to demand reform and an end to corruption.
Also on Thursday, British Minister for the Middle East James Cleverly was on his first “virtual visit” to Lebanon, the British embassy said.
“Reform, economy and security” top the agenda, it had said in a statement Wednesday.