Do the US and France See Eye to Eye on Lebanon?

Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader
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It is instructive to review the French draft Plan presented by President Macron to the oligarchy during his September 1 visit in light of the subsequent visit, statements, and interviews by Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East David Schenker. There has been some commentary that France’s position on Hezbollah is less stringent – proposing that political and economic reforms will weaken its control over large swaths of the Lebanese government and people – whereas the US prefers to use sanctions to change Hezbollah’s behavior. France also regards Hezbollah as made up of a political and a military wing, to which Schenker responded, “In democracies you have to choose between bullets and ballots. You cannot have both. Political parties do not have militias.”

The differences over a Hezbollah strategy notwithstanding, a closer reading of the plan shows a strong correlation between the approaches and reflects what Schenker refers to as the close collaboration between the US State Department and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Schenker notes that the US and France are on same page when it comes to political and economic reforms being a prerequisite to unlock any international financial assistance to Lebanon.

According to the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, “The plan requires the majority of the commitments (20) to be achieved within one month of the government gaining confidence, two within the first three months, one by the end of this year, and one within one year.” Here are some of the highlights of the French draft Plan that demonstrate overlapping approaches.

The first two points refer to the need to address the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable and marginalized segments of society. This is accompanied by the statement that immediate steps should be taken to set up a coordinating mechanism with the UN to facilitate the distribution of international aid in a “transparent and traceable manner.” The US is currently the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance to Lebanon to fight Covid-19 and is working to strengthen its initial allocation of $30 million in both humanitarian and reconstruction assistance after the Beirut blasts. On the ground, the US is working with the UN to provide food assistance despite the White House’s known disdain for UN bodies. Even France is insisting that the government of Lebanon keep its hands off humanitarian assistance to circumvent pilferage and the resale of donated products on the open market.

Another area of cooperation mentioned in the proposal is the reconstruction of neighborhoods and the port of Beirut according to “fair standards.” Given the general reluctance of the international community to provide direct assistance to the government, it will be challenging to develop a comprehensive redevelopment plan without some official involvement as there are many issues including zoning, utilities, transportation access, etc. that will require coordination. Perhaps this is one of the areas in which the yet-to-be-named government can make a credible attempt to gain recognition and support. A good start would be implementing the plan’s call for “Conducting an impartial and independent investigation within a reasonable timeline.”

Of course, underlying all of the issues in the Plan is the need to engage the IMF in reforming the economic and financial sectors, which will require extensive reworking and a myriad of regulations. One recurring condition mentioned in the plan are time specific deadlines for actions. This includes implementing passed reforms to the electricity sector, launching tenders for gas-fired power plants while reducing the reliance on private sector generators, and recasting the current Selaata power plant project that is mired in controversy.

On the issue of raising electricity rates, the plan calls for rates that first affect more affluent users. It also mentioned the importance of the capital controls draft law that must be completed and implemented, again according to a rigorous timetable. While US statements have not been as detailed, this is consistent with the general thrust of its policy recommendations. Importantly, as in Schenker’s statements, throughout the Plan, the French insist that the government regularly exchange views and ideas with civil society.

Rather than giving immediate access to the CEDRE funds as steps are being taken, the plan envisions a local follow up conference to review priorities and set schedules. This is to be in conjunction with implementing actions to approve the proposed law on an independent judiciary and transparent appointments based on competence in the judiciary and electricity, telecommunications, and civil aviation sectors. In tandem, it is recommended that the new government work an international body on an analysis and census of the public sector and an assessment of the public administration.

On the pervasive issue of corruption, the French Plan calls for setting up the National Anti-corruption Commission that has been drafted and provide it with the necessary resources to do its job. It encourages the government to establish within 90 days controls to provide oversight at the ports of Beirut and Tripoli, the airport, other cross-border entry points, and implement customs reforms. To strengthen the investment environment, it stresses the need for a law on public procurement and to provide adequate resources to the Higher Council for Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships.

It calls for the now instituted forensic audit of the Central Bank and asks Parliament to vote on a 2021 budget by the end of 2020.

Although there are no additional explicit terms in the French plan regarding political reforms, there is a call for election reform in that “The government will organize new legislative elections within a maximum period of one year,” and, “The electoral law will be reformed to fully include civil society, allowing Parliament to be more representative of the aspirations of civil society.” This also reflects the US position that steps need to be taken to more broadly engage civil society in governance whether through electoral reform or other mechanisms.

Both the US and France refer to the imposition of sanctions if steps are not taken in the short term. While the French have made some explicit references to deadlines, the US has already imposed initial sanctions against leaders who are charged with enabling Hezbollah to subvert the Lebanese state. A well-coordinated pressure campaign towards the new government, when it is installed, will be a crucial opportunity for the US and France to make a significant contribution to Lebanon’s recovery. With Gebran Bassil and Nabih Berri already saying they will not be part of a new government, it is hoped that other old regime paragons will likewise fade and give some semblance of new leadership emerging to lead Lebanon forward.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.