Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. His latest book is “Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.”

At a the close of a brief news conference upon his arrival at Beirut’s airport on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron was asked why he had come so soon after the catastrophic explosion from which the city was still reeling. “Parce que c’est vous, parce que c’est nous,” he softly replied, or “because it’s you, because it’s us.”

Those words — a deliberate echo of the famous explanation of friendship by the writer Michel de Montaigne — contain an elusive truth about the relationship between France and Lebanon. Though a number of French political figures declared that Macron’s visit smacked of neo-colonialist paternalism, history reveals, as it always does, that the truth is more complicated.

The optics and ethics of Macron’s visit were certainly striking. After leaving the airport — and, tellingly, leaving behind the country’s president, Michel Aoun — Macron went directly to the epicenter of the blast that had ended more than 150 lives and upended much of the city. Stepping away from the cortege of official vehicles that had brought him to Gemmayzeh, one of the neighborhoods shattered by the explosion, Macron was quickly surrounded by a surging crowd of local residents. He shook eagerly outstretched hands, hugged a woman overcome by tears and was cheered by cries of “Vive la France!”

Yet the many cheers for the president of Lebanon’s former colonial overseer were accompanied by even more jeers for the current Lebanese political establishment, all of whom were held responsible for the disaster and, understandably, none of whom had accompanied Macron to the neighborhood. There were cries of “Aoun is a terrorist!” and “Monsieur President, lend us your guillotine!” While he ignored that particular request, Macron acknowledged what he called “the healthy rage” of the crowd. “I understand your anger,” he told one man, vowing that he would “assume his obligations” toward Lebanon.

Here, though, is the rub. It is unclear what a former colonial power owes those countries that were former colonies — or, as with the case of Lebanon, former mandates. During his visit to Gemmayzeh, Macron declared an end to business as usual in Lebanon. By this, Macron meant the reign of the political religious clans that had come to power in 1990, ending Lebanon’s horrifying civil war and beginning the crippling corruption that has since plagued the country. After his meeting with leading members of Lebanon’s civil society, which had mobilized against the government long before the explosion, Macron reaffirmed that the nation’s “political system had to be rebuilt.”

But how? While Macron’s declaration sounded decisive, the devil remains in the details. Any new diplomatic effort led by France, Le Monde warned, risks repeating older efforts by running into the “same inertias as those which led to the current impasse.” It is not reassuring, in this regard, that during his meeting with leaders of the country’s political factions, including Hezbollah, Macron called for a “government of national unity.” This is the same formula, after all, that for decades has effectively led to a government of national disunion. The basis for peace in 1990 — the sharing of power among Maronite and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims — has since metamorphosed into the dividing of riches among these same communities.

This state of affairs, which has reinforced the communitarian character as well as the chronic corruption of the country, cannot be quickly or easily repaired or remade. It is, instead, a work of long duration. Does Macron have the time or means to follow through in a meaningful way? As for means, Macron affirmed that the financial aid he promised to Lebanon would be given to fully transparent institutions and organizations that will distribute it directly to those in need. As for the state ministries, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was blunt: “We will not give a penny to this political class.”

But France’s leverage is not as great as its ostensible neo-colonialist ties would suggest. Not only does France not have significant economic ties to Lebanon — it ranks as only the sixth-largest exporter to the country — but Lebanon, now that the Palestinian question is on the diplomatic backburner, does not have the same strategic value it once held for France. It may well be that what truly ties the two countries together is a shared language as well as a shared space — the more than 250,000 Lebanese who live in France call Paris “Beirut on the Seine” — that make for the special relationship between the two countries.

As for time, Macron has precious little: Less than two years now remain before the presidential election of 2022. Much of the time between now and then will be consumed by the medical, social and economic crises ignited by the coronavirus pandemic.

For the moment, the French are far less enthusiastic over Macron than are the Lebanese. Shortly before his visit to Lebanon, only 39 percent of voters expressed confidence in Macron. Of course, Macron’s numbers can improve, but it is doubtful that commitments in time and resources to Lebanon, no matter how special the relationship, will be the reason.

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