Lebanon explosion no pretext to avoid change, says France's Le Drian

PARIS (Reuters) - Lebanon’s leaders should not use the explosion that destroyed parts of Beirut earlier this month as an excuse to hide the reality that the country was on the edge of a precipice, France’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.

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“The catastrophe should not be used as a pretext to obscure the reality that existed before ... that is, a country on the brink of collapse,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in the southern port city of Marseille before a ship with 2,500 tonnes of aid set sail for the Lebanese capital.

“We hope that this moment will be the moment which allows the Lebanese authorities, the Lebanese officials, to take the necessary leap for a government with a mission to initiate the essential reforms that everyone knows (are needed).”

France has been leading diplomatic efforts for almost two years to persuade Lebanon to push through reforms and secure foreign aid needed to offset a financial meltdown.

In the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 4 blast that destroyed whole neighbourhoods, killed more than 170 people and made 250,000 homeless, Macron rushed to Beirut hoping to use the leverage of international reconstruction aid to persuade Lebanon’s factions to choose a new administration led by individuals untainted by corruption and backed by foreign donors.

However, progress has been slow with some diplomats increasingly frustrated over the situation.

The outgoing government comprised mostly technocrat ministers but these were nominated by sectarian leaders who exerted influence on them and obstructed reforms. Politicians fear reforms would end their system of patronage.

When asked whether the process to form a new government was too slow, Le Drian said there had to be an awakening now.

“That is what the president (Macron) indicated to the Lebanese politicians a few days ago and it’s what he will tell them again when he returns soon,” Le Drian said.

Macron is expected in Beirut on Sept 1.

Diplomatic sources have said that Macron is pushing Lebanon’s political leaders to install an interim technocratic government able to enact reforms, win back public confidence and persuade donors to release billions of dollars in aid.

“I think the awareness is happening and we are ready to help. But we are not going to take the place of the Lebanese officials,” Le Drian said.

A diplomatic source said much of the aid being sent to Lebanon this week was food, but also healthcare goods to help the country tackle a spike in COVID-19 cases. It would be distributed directly to humanitarian groups by the French embassy to ensure it did not fall into the wrong hands, one official said.

Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Sandra Maler and Grant McCool