Beirut: French President Emmanuel Macron promised angry crowds in Beirut on Thursday that aid to rebuild the city will not end up in corrupt hands.
Macron used a visit to the shattered city to urge the political authorities to carry out reforms or risk plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.
He was speaking during the first visit by a foreign leader to the Lebanese capital since a massive blast tore through the city, killing at least 145 people and injuring 5000.
After visiting the port at the epicentre of the blast, Macron was greeted by crowds in nearby Gemmayze Street, one of the most damaged in the city. Residents shouted chants against the political establishment and endemic corruption.
“I guarantee you, this aid will not go to corrupt hands,” said Macron told them.
France has long sought to support its former colony and has sent emergency aid since the explosion, but it has joined other Western nations in pressing for reforms to root out corruption and to reduce debt.
Shortly after landing in Beirut, Macron said France’s solidarity with the Lebanese people was unconditional, but that he wanted to deliver some “home truths” to political figures.
“Beyond the blast, we know the crisis here is serious, it involves the historic responsibility of leaders in place,” Macron told reporters after being met at the airport by Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
“We can’t do without telling each other some home truths. If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink.”
Macron cited the need for reforms to the energy sector and to public tenders, as well as measures to stamp out corruption.
He promised to send more medical and other aid to Lebanon.
“I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact. I am here today to propose a new political pact to them,” he said, shaking hands with residents on roads strewn with rubble and flanked by shops with windows blown out.
Residents, shop owners and volunteers have led clean-up efforts in the popular street of cafes and restaurants, where the blast ripped out balconies and smashed store facades.
Macron was applauded by crowds in the mainly Christian part of the capital, with chants of “Vive la France! Help us! You are our only hope!”
Some also chanted slogans against Aoun, who is a Maronite Christian, and leads by way of Lebanon’s political arrangement of dividing powerful positions between religious communities.
One picture showed Macron hugging a woman who had earlier shouted that he was meeting with “warlords”.
Macron replied: “I’m not here to help them, I’m here to help you.”
Macron also met with Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is a Sunni Muslim, and Nabih Berri, the Shi’ite Muslim speaker of Parliament.
Afterwards, he met civilian and political groups, including a representative from the political branch of Hezbollah.
In France, some of Macron’s political opponents criticised the tone of the President’s comments.
“I am warning against any interference in Lebanon’s political life. It won’t be accepted,” Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the far-left France Unbowed party, said.
“Lebanon is not a French protectorate.”
But others, including Macron’s usual opponents, defended his stance.
“It’s just as well he’s asking for reforms from a government whose negligence and corruption is legendary,” Socialist lawmaker Raphael Glucksmann said.
“That’s what Lebanese citizens are asking for. What they’re shouting in the rubble. Any other tone would have been obscene.” he
Officials blamed the blast on a huge stockpile of a highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at Beirut port. The government ordered some port workers arrested.
Many Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in a financial crisis, say the explosion was symptomatic of neglect and corruption in the political system.