Emmanuel Macron’s move to boost his country’s influence in Lebanon has shown a French president with the confidence, and political instinct, to seize his moment on the world stage.

Two days after the devastating explosion tore through Beirut Macron toured the site of the blast and some of the capital’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods.

Making the first visit by a foreign leader since the disaster, he was greeted with cheers in the streets of Beirut as he promised urgent international aid – but not without radical reform of a political class widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.

A vocal defender of liberal values and high-profile player in world affairs since his 2017 election, Macron relished the moment, prompting comparisons with a celebrated 1996 walkabout through Jerusalem’s old city by the late president Jacques Chirac widely seen as having cemented his popularity.

The president’s domestic opponents were quick to accuse him of neo-colonialist grandstanding, but analysts were generally impressed.

“This will remain a major moment in Macron’s foreign policy,” said Le Monde’s diplomatic correspondent, Piotr Smolar. “Both in terms of images – the crowds calling France to the rescue – and words, extremely harsh, directed at the Lebanese ruling class. Claims of interference are understandable, but shaky.”

Benjamin Haddad, of the Atlantic Council, tweeted: “History counts. France has a special link to Lebanon, a historic responsibility. The pictures of Emmanuel Macron in Beirut are moving and powerful. The world is watching.”

In Lebanon, a former French protectorate, Macron’s assured – and reassuring – performance won popular applause. By late on Thursday nearly 60,000 people had signed an online petition demanding the country “be placed under a French mandate for the next 10 years”.

Three years into his term, Macron, whose pragmatic approach to foreign affairs one analyst has defined as “dealing with the world as it is, while making clear what you stand for”, struts the global arena with a conviction – if not always the results – that has led some to see him as a white knight of the liberal world order.

At home, he is still battling a critical, if not outright hostile, French public generally unconvinced by his at times arrogant, aloof and imperious style. He is opposed, sometimes violently, for his pro-business reforms aimed at spurring growth, creating jobs and deregulating the economy.

But his popularity surged in recent weeks after he clinched a deal with other EU leaders on a €750bn European coronavirus economic recovery package and reshuffled his government; his approval rating rose by six percentage points in one poll, reaching 50% for only the second time in more than two years.

In Beirut on Thursday he also displayed a talent for retail politics that he is rarely able to deploy in France. He gave one woman who implored him for help a long hug, drawing cheers from the crowd, and told others: “I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here.”

Wearing a black tie in mourning and with his shirt sleeves rolled up, he promised cheering crowds on another street to deliver some “home truths” to the Lebanese government.

Simmering anger against Lebanon’s leaders has boiled over since the blast, believed to have been caused by 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate left by the authorities in a warehouse for years despite repeated warnings.

Macron said he would “never interfere in Lebanese politics” but seek a “new political deal” from the country’s leaders, pressing hard for change. “I am going to talk to them … I will hold them accountable,” he said.

Whether he does so remains to be seen. But saying passionately, and sympathetically, that he will try will have done Macron no harm.

 

The Guardian