Press conference by Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and Mr Nassif Hitti, Lebanon’s Minister for Foreign Affairs – Remarks by Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian (Beirut, 23 July 2020)
Dear Nassif, ladies and gentlemen, I am truly delighted to be here today with you. I am in Lebanon, on my second visit as Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the request of the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron. The reason that I am here today is first and foremost to affirm that France stands, and will always stand, alongside Lebanon and the Lebanese people. As you know, we have a very unique relationship with this country. We have a shared history, and this year we will celebrate the centenary of the Proclamation of the State of Greater Lebanon. We also share strong human ties which run deeply in our two societies.
Ladies and gentlemen, the message of truth I want to give you today is also in the name of these human ties. The situation is critical. Lebanon is in a very worrying position. An economic and financial crisis is raging. Already, there are real, dramatic consequences for the Lebanese people, who are growing poorer by the day.
We do not want this crisis to undermine the model of tolerance and openness upon which Lebanon is built, and which is a key aspect of its identity. I have come here to underline France’s determination to remain at Lebanon’s side, especially at this difficult time.
The solutions for the country’s recovery have been known for a long time. With the Economic Conference for Development through Reforms with the Private Sector (CEDRE), we proposed a “contract of trust” to finance development projects in exchange for the necessary structural reforms. Everyone is aware of the need for change. This request for reform, which I reaffirmed last December in Paris at the International Support Group meeting that I had convened, is fully aligned with the expectations of the Lebanese people.
They have clearly expressed their legitimate aspirations through the popular protest movement that began in October 2019. They took to the streets to demonstrate an entire people’s thirst for change, a desire for transparency and to fight against corruption, and to demand better governance. Unfortunately, this call has thus far fallen on deaf ears.
Today it is urgent and necessary to solidly commit to the path of reform. And that is the message that I have come here today to pass on to the Lebanese authorities and all of the political forces. The expectations that I mention are not just those of France. They are most importantly those of the Lebanese people, and all of the international community.
I particularly have in mind the resumption of negotiations with the IMF, through the effective implementation of the audit of Lebanon’s central bank. We must not fool ourselves: there is no alternative to an IMF programme if Lebanon is to exit the crisis.
I am also talking about the reform of the electricity sector, which is a highly symbolic project. I wish to be frank: what has been done up until now in this sector is not very encouraging.
Lastly, there is the fight against corruption. President Aoun shared his firm opinions with me on this issue this morning. Corruption must be fought, and smuggling must be fought, and this is fundamental for Lebanon’s future. In the same vein, an independent justice system and strengthened transparency are essential.
France is prepared to take action to support Lebanon, and rally all of its partners, but for this to happen, serious and credible recovery measures must be put in place. Solid action has been needed for far too long. As I recently mentioned before the French Senate: “Help us to help you!” And these, ladies and gentlemen, are the key words of my visit to Beirut.
The message that I am bringing to Lebanon is twofold: it is a message of France’s expectations concerning the reforms that must be implemented by the authorities, and a message of support for the Lebanese people. France stands steadfastly by their side to help them to confront the challenges facing them.
We have helped Lebanon since the beginning of the health crisis. Our support was provided in the delivery of medical equipment. These measures benefitted a small number of countries, but we made Lebanon a priority. The support provided in equipment was accompanied by financial support in the health sector.
France is also providing humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable populations. This year, the sum of €50 million will be allocated in direct humanitarian support. This support mainly goes to basic public services, in particular health structures. However, first it is up to the Lebanese authorities to set up social safety nets, as Nassif has mentioned, and which are currently inexistent, and also to provide the Lebanese people with public services and infrastructures.
I am also here today, ladies and gentlemen, to show France’s support to the young people of Lebanon and the education sector. The consequences of the pandemic have been dire for Lebanon’s one million schoolchildren who, like many young people around the world, have been deprived of classes for many months.
The crisis has also affected French and French-language schools, as France and Lebanon share an extraordinarily rich history in this area. There are 61,000 children attending the 52 French schools in Lebanon, and 300 French-language Christian schools which 190,000 pupils of all faiths attend. At the request of the President of the French Republic, we have provided our full support in the face of this crisis. The emergency response plan for French education abroad includes a specific segment for all of the families in the 52 schools in the French school network in Lebanon.
We also decided to accelerate the implementation of a foundation for Christian schools, which will offer support to all French-speaking schools in Lebanon and the region, known for their tradition of welcoming children of all backgrounds and faiths. So I wish to stress once more the importance of this francophonie, which we share with Lebanon, a model in support of education, multilingualism and respect for diversity.
Finally, dear Minister and dear friend Nassif, we will continue to support the Lebanese army, the backbone of this State, and the security forces as a whole, which play a crucial role in the country’s stability and security. It is essential that the Lebanese State affirms its authority and control over the territory, and it is vital that all of Lebanon’s leaders respect and preserve the principle of Lebanon’s disassociation from the crises occurring in the region.
I cannot speak about Lebanon’s complex regional situation without mentioning the war in Syria. Lebanon welcomes to its land, with great generosity I must point out, a significant number of refugees. We are aware of this, and once again I wish to commend Lebanese efforts to make this possible and assure them that we will continue our efforts to ensure that these refugees may return safely and with dignity to Syria.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I wanted to say to you today. Rest assured that France will always stand alongside Lebanon and the Lebanese people, and will do its utmost to help you in these difficult times. But for this to work, the Lebanese authorities must play their part.
Ladies and gentlemen, you may know the French expression “God helps those that help themselves.”
What I want to say today to Lebanon’s leaders is: “France and its partners will help those that help themselves.” Thank you.