Following previous media discussion about and announcements of a visit that has been postponed for months, French President Francois Hollande is to arrive in Beirut on April 16 as part of a four-day tour of the Middle East.
A source close to Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told Al-Monitor that “Bustros Palace, which houses the Foreign Ministry, has been working with officials at the French Embassy for days on finalizing the schedule of Hollande’s visit.”
The source said, “The schedule contains a clear protocol issue due to the presidential vacuum,” but added that Hollande still "will make a visit to two Lebanese officials who do not hold the title of head of state. These are Prime Minister Tammam Salam and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.”
The source said no other visits have been scheduled for Hollande. Even Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi is not on the list for a visit, even though the seat of the Maronite Church in Bkerke has several centuries of relations with Paris and a standing tradition whereby every French president visiting Beirut would visit the patriarch at the patriarchal edifice.
The source said that in case no visit to the patriarch's quarters takes place, a special arrangement is being discussed where Hollande would hold a short, private meeting with the patriarch on the sidelines of a dinner that will be held in honor of Hollande at the French Embassy in Beirut and attended by various Lebanese religious officials.
Hollande will meet with various politicians, such as heads of political parties and parliamentary blocs, in a similar meeting at the Pine Residence, the embassy’s historic headquarters, in Beirut. The visit includes a meeting between Hollande and UNIFIL's French battalion in the south.
A French diplomatic source told Al-Monitor, “Four key items are on the agenda for the visits and political meetings. First is the promotion of bilateral French-Lebanese ties in all fields. Second is the situation in Syria and its tragic impact on Lebanon, especially the influx of Syrians, which has become an economic, security and environmental burden on Lebanon. Third is French confirmation of support for Lebanon’s official military forces, especially the Lebanese army. Therefore, the Saudi $3 billion grant to supply the Lebanese army with French-made weapons, which was canceled in February, will be raised in the meetings. Paris and Beirut are interested in bringing back the grant ... for many reasons. The last item on the agenda of Hollande’s discussions in Beirut is the presidential vacuum that has been ongoing since May 25, 2014.”
The French source told Al-Monitor, “Hollande had voiced his intention to visit Beirut months ago, but his visit was delayed every time. Some Lebanese factional and state officials were making sure to relay to France the message that nothing can be done now in Beirut for France. Therefore, there is no point for France to make this presidential trip at the moment. Some Lebanese officials were asking France not to waste the card of Hollande’s visit, because its poor timing means that it won’t bear any tangible fruit, especially amid the presidential vacuum. They wanted to spare Lebanon another disappointment or shock following a [potential] failed French step, which would make citizens feel that nothing can get Lebanon out of its presidential stalemate after seeing the inability of the president of a major power to set the right stage for the election of a new president.”
The French diplomatic source added, “Such discouraging talk was also circulating in Paris in the French press, which repeated analyses on the inability of French authorities to make a breakthrough on the presidential dilemma under the current circumstances.”
“This visit is part of a Middle Eastern tour, and this alone justifies the French presidential visit. Besides, this tour constitutes a chance to tackle the Lebanese presidential issue in several concerned capitals in the Arab world. France has been preparing for this visit. French Ambassador to Lebanon Emanuel Bon met with Hezbollah in the context of preparing for Hollande’s visit. Bon met with Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc Leader MP Mohammad Raad [on April 7],” the source added.
The French diplomatic source considered this visit “significant, as it indicates France’s openness to all Lebanese parties and seriousness in talking to everyone and finding out about their stances to pave the way for any initiative that Hollande might launch in Lebanon or during his tour in the Middle East.”
However, Lebanon’s experience with French initiatives, especially presidential ones, has not been historically encouraging.
Former Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Abdallah Abu Habib commented on the French source’s words and on the media atmosphere accompanying Hollande’s visit. He told Al-Monitor, “France has a chronic obsession with Lebanon — one that stems from the fact that it once occupied the country. For that reason, it always thought it had the upper hand in managing the country’s affairs, but that was never the case. The international and Lebanese balances of power have radically changed. In 1943, France occupied Lebanon, and there were presidential elections. At the time, France decided to support the candidacy of Emile Eddeh. But his rival Bechara al-Khoury won the presidency instead. Ever since, France’s attempts and failures have gone hand in hand. The situation in Lebanon is currently more complicated than France’s approach or the ability of Hollande’s visit to cause a change. The visit will be merely symbolic, while the serious issues will have to wait for other circumstances and key players.”
Nevertheless, Hollande’s visit to Beirut on April 16 will top political headlines in Lebanon, which has been absent from Western and European news priorities for a while.