French foreign minister warns Lebanon cannot risk ‘power vacuum’

The French foreign minister on Friday called for the rapid election of a new Lebanese president, after a second vote in parliament to choose a successor to incumbent Michel Aoun failed.

“Lebanon today cannot risk a power vacuum,” said Catherine Colonna after a short visit to the Middle Eastern country, urging its leaders to assume “their political and institutional responsibilities”.

Aoun was elected in 2016, after a presidential vacancy of more than two years. He was chosen after lawmakers tried 45 times to reach a consensus on a nominee.

After an unsuccessful attempt to achieve a quorum on Thursday, parliament speaker Nabih Berri called for a new vote on the presidency on October 20, before Aoun’s term ends at the end of the month.

Lebanon, plagued by a political paralysis that has hampered attempts to form a new government since the term of the outgoing cabinet expired in May, is also grappling with the worst financial crisis in its history.

Calling the economic crisis “unprecedented”, Colonna said it would be “dangerous to subject the Lebanese to the consequences of another political crisis”.

“Without a shock from the Lebanese leadership, Lebanon’s collapse will continue,” she said.

Since the beginning of the financial crisis in Lebanon in 2019, the currency has lost more than 95% of its value and poverty rates have increased to cover most of the population.

Colonna, who met Friday morning with Aoun, Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, called for the implementation of a preliminary agreement reached with the International Monetary Fund, saying it was the “only solution” for the country bankrupt receives the financing it needs.

Lebanon is under pressure from the IMF to streamline the implementation of reforms needed to unlock billions in loans before Aoun’s term expires.

Colonna’s visit came after Lebanon and Israel reached an agreement this week over a maritime border dispute involving offshore gas fields after years of US-mediated talks.

Lebanon hopes an offshore discovery can ease its financial downturn.

But Colonna warned that “this agreement cannot replace economic and financial reforms, which are essential”.

Under the agreement, Lebanon will have full rights to exploit and explore the so-called Qana or Sidon Reservoir, parts of which lie within Israeli territorial waters.

There are still no proven gas reserves in the reservoir.