Macron calls for reforms as he hits Beirut’s streets in show of solidarity

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, walks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun at Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut on Thursday. — Courtesy photo
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, walks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun at Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut on Thursday. — Courtesy photo

BEIRUT — French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beirut on Thursday, the first world leader in the Lebanese capital after a massive explosion wreaked destruction across the city.

He urged the country's political elite to make swift and urgent reforms as he interacted with angry Lebanese crowds on Beirut’s streets.

The blast on Tuesday devastated entire neighborhoods, killing over 135 people and injuring more than 5,000. Nearly 300,000 residents have been rendered homeless, according to the city’s governor.

The deadly explosion is believed to have been caused by large amounts of ammonium nitrate kept in an unsecured store of at the Beirut port

It was the latest blow to a country already reeling from an unprecedented financial crisis and political instability.

Macron was greeted on the tarmac by Lebanese President Michel Aoun and is expected to head directly to the port to meet Lebanese and French teams in the disaster area.

Speaking shortly after his arrival, Macron said he hoped to bring a message of support and friendship to the Lebanese people.

“Lebanon is facing political and economic crisis and an urgent response to this is required,” the French president said.

He promised to help organize international aid for Lebanon but said its government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption.

"If reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer," he said.

Later in the day, Macron will head to the presidential palace for meetings with “all political actors”, including Prime Minister Hassan Diab. He will also meet with members of different political factions and civil society before giving a press conference later that afternoon.

Both sides are hoping Macron’s visit goes more smoothly than a trip last month by France's top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian, who scolded Lebanon's political elite for being too "passive" in the face of an economic crisis compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the aftermath of that visit, Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned in protest at his government's lack of crisis management.

“France is very popular here in Lebanon. There’s a long-running history of a relationship between the two,” said FRANCE 24’s Leila Molana-Allen, reporting from Beirut.

"Recently, the tensions have been over the fact that of course the French government is not coordinating with the Lebanese government in the way that politicians here want them to but the Lebanese people, many of them, are happy about that. They feel that international money should not be going to this government.

"Many people who have been protesting for the last nine months, they say that this government will not spend it on the things that people actually need,” Molana-Allen added.

Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz said Wednesday at least 21 French citizens were injured in the blast and prosecutors had opened a probe into "negligent injury" using their jurisdiction to investigate acts committed abroad.

Two French planes were also expected to arrive on Thursday with specialist rescue personnel and equipment.

Offers of international support have poured in. — Agencies