French foreign minister pushes for reforms in Lebanon

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab meets with French Foreign Affair Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at the governmental palace in Beirut.

France's visiting foreign minister said France could only help Lebanon face the crisis if Lebanese officials do their part, urging them to introduce much-needed reforms. Le Drian is the first senior Western official to visit the struggling country.

During the visit, Le Drian, who arrived here late Wednesday, said Lebanon is on France's list of priority countries for humanitarian assistance, adding that his country already donated €50 million ($58 million), primarily to the healthcare sector to deal with the coronavirus challenge. But he said Thursday the only way out of the financial and economic crisis for Lebanon is to secure a programme with the International Monetary Fund. Only then can France and its allies secure assistance for Lebanon, he added.

Talks with the IMF have been bogged down in internal political disputes and struggles over who is to blame for banking losses.

"Help us to help you is the message of my visit," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said after meeting Lebanese leaders in Beirut, adding that Paris stood ready to mobilise support but there must be concrete action on reform.

In stern public messages, he urged Lebanese officials to go through with an audit of the country's central bank, reform a bloated and highly indebted electricity sector, and maintain an independent judiciary.

France is the former colonial power in Lebanon and has previously organised conferences that pledged assistance to Lebanon but demanded reforms to the public sector and governance.

“Lebanon is on the verge of the abyss. But there are ways on the table to fix this,” he said Friday during a visit to a school in Mechref district.

Lebanon's crisis is rooted in years of mismanagement and corruption. It has deepened since the government defaulted on its sovereign debt in March, the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that it brought.

Lebanon witnessed nationwide protests last October after the government, as part of efforts to introduce austerity measures, levied new taxes on messaging service WhatsApp. Protesters accused the government of mismanagement and years of corruption and eventually forced then-premier Saad Hariri to resign.

A new government, backed by the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies was formed in January and has since been bogged down by domestic rivalries on ways to proceed with reforms and the IMF talks.

The economic crisis has impacted almost all facets of life in Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country long considered a middle-income state. Since last year, unemployment has risen and poverty deepened, as foreign currency dried up and the local currency tumbled to lose more than 80 percent of its value against the dollar.

France's visiting foreign minister pledged €15 million in aid to Lebanon's schools, which have been hit hard by the country's economic meltdown. France will not abandon Lebanese youth,

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters as he visited a school in Mechref, south of

Beirut, on the third and final day of his trip to Lebanon.

The French financial assistance will go to a network of over 50 French and Francophone schools in the country. The announcement comes a day after Le Drian scolded Lebanon's leadership for failing to take the measures he said are necessary to save the country from collapse.

Lebanon's education sector has been hit hard by the crisis, with schools forced to let teachers and administrators go and many facing the risk of closure. Parents, struggling to pay private school fees, are increasingly enrolling their children in already overcrowded public schools.

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