French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday promised aid to Lebanon but reassured angry citizens reeling from a lethal blast that killed at least 145 people that no blank checks will be given to its leaders unless they enact reforms and end rife corruption.
Speaking at a news conference at the end of a dramatic visit to Beirut, Macron called for an international inquiry into the devastating explosion that generated a seismic shock felt across the region, saying it was an urgent signal to carry out anti-corruption reforms demanded by a furious population.
Dozens are still missing after Tuesday’s explosion at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to 250,000 without habitable homes, hammering a nation already staggering from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases.
Macron said he proposed to the Lebanese authorities a roadmap of urgent reforms to unlock billions of dollars in funds from the international community, and that he would return to Lebanon in September to follow up.
“If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,” Macron said. “What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era.”
He said France will organize an international aid conference for Lebanon, and he promised “transparent governance” so the aid goes to the people, NGOs and relief groups and not to the ruling elite which has been accused of corruption and mismanagement.
He told reporters that an audit was needed on the Lebanese central bank, among other urgent changes, and that the World Bank and United Nations would play a role in any Lebanese reforms. Talks with the IMF on a rescue package have stalled over the failure of the government to enact serious reforms.
During his visit Macron met all Lebanese political factions, including the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group which dominates Lebanese politics. He urged Hezbollah to use its influence to press the government to carry out reforms and think of Lebanon’s interest rather that Iran’s.
Earlier, wearing a black tie in mourning, Macron toured the blast site and Beirut’s shattered streets where angry crowds demanded an end to a “regime” of Lebanese politicians they blame for dragging Lebanon into disaster.
“I guarantee you, this (reconstruction) aid will not go to corrupt hands,” Macron told the throngs who greeted him. “I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here,” he told one group, pledging to deliver “home truths” to Lebanon’s leaders.
At the French ambassador’s residence, where a French general declared the creation of the state of Lebanon exactly 100 years ago, Macron said it was no longer up to France to tell Lebanese leaders what to do, but that he could apply “pressure”.
Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded in Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea coast, about 580 km away. Operations have been paralyzed at Beirut port, Lebanon’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports.