French envoy meets with key Lebanese figures on ‘consultative’ mission

French special envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday met with key figures in Lebanon on a “consultative” mission as he pushes for a solution to the country’s protracted political deadlock.

Lebanon, mired in a crippling economic crisis for over three years, has been governed by a caretaker cabinet for more than a year and without a president for almost eight months.

Lawmakers in the parliament, where no group has a clear majority, have failed 12 times to elect a new president, amid bitter divisions between the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its opponents.

“This is a consultative mission… to ensure the country moves on from the political impasse,” Le Drian told reporters.

He said he was holding “the necessary talks with all players in order to immediately end the political deadlock”.

Le Drian met with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the influential head of the Maronite Church, Beshara Rai, on Thursday, after holding talks with parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a key Hezbollah ally, the day before.

Under Lebanon’s delicate sectarian power-sharing system, the president is conventionally a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker a Shiite.

The last presidential vote, held earlier this month, pitted the Hezbollah-backed Sleiman Frangieh against financial official Jihad Azour, who had mainly been endorsed by Christian and independent legislators.

Lebanese Christian politicians have criticised Paris for having appeared to support Frangieh on the condition that he was flanked by a reformist premier.

“The solution comes first of all from the Lebanese,” said Le Drian, adding that his country was not “coming with options” for the presidency.

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called for a “rapid end to the institutional political vacuum in Lebanon”.

Multiple attempts spearheaded by Lebanon’s former mandate ruler France to extricate the country from its woes have ended in failure.

“The most important thing is to start the negotiation process,” said analyst Michael Young from the Carnegie Middle East Center, noting the importance of both local and regional players.

He said “a package deal” could involve the nomination of not only a president but also a prime minister, a central bank governor and an army chief later this year.

France has issued an arrest warrant for embattled central bank chief Riad Salameh over accusations including money laundering.

Salameh, whose mandate ends next month, denies the accusations.

Pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar on Thursday predicted a prolonged presidential vacuum and said there were “no great hopes for Le Drian’s visit”.

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