The explosion on Aug. 4 — one of the largest nonnuclear blasts in recent history — was the most visceral expression of a cascade of calamities facing the small country, from refugee crises to shambolic governance to fiscal chaos and an economy in free fall. Lebanon was perennially on the brink of disaster; on a sunny day last year, as a towering pink cloud loomed over Beirut’s coastline, it seemed to slip over that edge.
One man conspicuously came to the rescue. French President Emmanuel Macron jetted in to the former French colony just two days after the explosion. He was greeted rapturously by crowds of Beirutis furious with their own political elites, whose perceived venality and neglect laid the kindling for disaster. On a second visit just a few weeks later, Macron chose to first call on Fairouz, the famed Lebanese singer who is a more unifying figure for the nation than anyone mustered by its feuding political factions. “She represents stories of love and a Lebanon dreamed of and loved,” the French president told a local TV station after presenting the diva with an award for the Légion d’Honneur, the highest French order of merit.
Macron promised to help push through much-needed political and economic reforms. He planted a cedar tree — the country’s national emblem — and spoke of ushering in Lebanon’s “rebirth.” Speaking to Politico, the French president paraphrased a line written by Italian Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci: “The new is having a hard time emerging, and the old is persevering,” Macron said. “We have to find a way through, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
But as Lebanon’s self-appointed midwife, Macron has little to show months later. Cynicism surrounding his gambit set in swiftly. Observers mocked Macron as more popular in Beirut than in Paris, where he will face a stiff test to retain power in elections next year. The limits of his influence were already visible when Lebanon’s political factions blazed by a mid-September deadline to form a new government. The country’s caretaker government is now on its fourth prime minister — the billionaire businessman Najib Mikati — since the explosion took place.
Macron repeatedly expressed disappointment with Lebanon’s politicians for prioritizing their narrow interests over the public good. His ire was directed especially at Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite faction with links to Iran, whose allies include the country’s Maronite Christian president, Michel Aoun. But Macron also had minimal leverage over these actors and only belatedly slapped light sanctions on a number of Lebanese politicians linked to allegations of corruption.
“Macron, he answered 1,001 things. But I couldn’t get one material thing out of him,” Samir Geagea, an influential anti-Hezbollah politician and former warlord, told the Financial Times about the French president’s talks in Beirut last year. “Because all that Macron wanted was to be nice to everybody in order to get the agreement done.”
Months later, Macron would voice a degree of resignation. “We remain invested [in Lebanon] but I cannot replace those who hold the system with all its defects and its imbalances,” he said this June. “I hope that the spirit of responsibility which has been lacking for several months will start. The people deserve it.” Still, he is set to host yet another funding conference for debt-ridden Lebanon in Paris.
The blast triggered a huge social backlash, with a new wave of protests roiling the country. Lebanese civil society and nonprofits both worked to fill in gaps left open by a failing government, while also driving calls for sweeping political reform of a system that’s a legacy of the ethnic and religious factionalism of the country’s bloody civil war.
But some analysts contend that Macron’s entry into the fray provided the Lebanese political class a degree of cover.
“French intervention just bought the political elite time to kill the momentum gained by the protest movement after the blast,” Nizar Ghanem, co-founder of Lebanese think tank Triangle Consulting, told Foreign Policy earlier this summer. “Now, the people are still suffering and the French want to help, so they will throw some money at the problem and that money will float the same politicians. We are in a vicious cycle.”
One year after the explosion, Lebanon is arguably in even worse shape. “The country’s collapse has accelerated,” my colleague Nader Durgham wrote last week. “The currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value, impoverishing millions. Food and medicines are scarce. Lebanon has almost completely run out of fuel, paralyzing transport and leaving even those wealthy enough to afford generators without electricity.”
Meanwhile, as many in the Lebanese middle class watched their savings evaporate amid the collapse of the Lebanese pound, thousands of families have left the country as part of a mass exodus. Those who remain cope with chronic shortages of fuel and electricity. According to Save the Children, in Beirut, close to a million people — almost 15 percent of the Lebanon’s overall population — can’t afford basic goods, including food, water and hygiene products.
In June, the World Bank declared Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis one of the world’s worst since the mid-19th century. It warned that “continuous policy inaction and the absence of a fully functioning executive authority” would further unravel the country’s already “fragile social peace.”