French President Emmanuel Macron promised angry Lebanese crowds in shattered Beirut that aid to rebuild the city would not go to “corrupt hands” and he urged the political authorities to carry out reforms or risk plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis. The blast that tore through the city killed at least 145 people and injured 5,000.
As he toured Beirut’s shattered streets on Thursday, two days after a giant explosion, crowds demanded the end to a “regime” of politicians they blame for corruption and dragging Lebanon into disaster.
“I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here,” he told one group, shaking their hands on roads strewn with rubble and flanked by shops with windows blown out after Tuesday’s blast that killed 145 and injured 5,000.
France has long sought to support its former colony and has sent emergency aid since the blast, but is worried about endemic corruption and has pressed for reforms as a financial crisis deepened in the Middle East country.
After landing in Beirut, Mr. Macron said France’s solidarity with the Lebanese people was unconditional, but said he wanted to tell 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,” Mr. Macron told reporters.
“We can’t do without telling each other some home truths,” he added. “If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink.”
Mr. Macron promised to send more medical and other aid to Lebanon, while those around him chanted “Revolution” and “The people want the fall of the regime.”
“But what is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” Mr. Macron said.
One man told Mr. Macron: “We hope this aid will go to the Lebanese people not the corrupt leaders.”
“I guarantee you, this aid will not go to corrupt hands,” said Mr. Macron, who was wearing a black tie in mourning.
“Mr President, you’re on General Gouraud Street, he freed us from the Ottomans. Free us from the current authorities,” said one person among the crowd.
Some of the crowd, who were filmed by a pool report in a predominantly Christian district of the capital, shouted: “Mr Macron, free us from Hezbollah,” referring to the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group, a powerful player in a nation where political loyalties often run along sectarian lines.
After visiting a pharmacy damaged by the explosion, Mr. Macron told the crowd: “I understand your anger. I am not here to write a blank cheque … to the regime.”
The President mentioned reforms of the energy sector, public tenders and the fight against corruption.
Lebanese officials have blamed the disaster on a huge stockpile of a highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at Beirut port.
But many Lebanese people who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in a financial meltdown have blamed it on politicians who have benefited from decades of state corruption and bad governance.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for ”concrete action” during a visit to Beirut last month and said protesters’ calls for change and transparency had “unfortunately not been heard so far.”