Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati met with French President Francois Hollande in New York on Wednesday and expressed his gratitude for what he called France's political support of Lebanon. During the meeting, Hollande said that France is committed to "preserving Lebanon's unity, sovereignty and independence." The meeting took place after French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian's Sept. 14 visit to Lebanon, where he pledged to strengthen military cooperation between the two countries.
France has historical, economic and cultural ties with Lebanon, a former French colony. Thousands of Franco-Lebanese citizens live and work in Lebanon, and French companies operate in the country. France is the main source of foreign direct investment into Lebanon. Moreover, some 250,000 people of Lebanese origin live in France. Thanks to its connection with France, Lebanon is one of the main Mediterranean beneficiaries of financial and technical assistance from the European Union.
However, French President Francois Hollande's current interest is in Lebanon is broader and more strategic. First, Paris is concerned about the events in Syria. France is one of the most important Mediterranean powers, and its strategy is to maintain some degree of political influence in the Levant. In the past, France has launched several initiatives (such as the Union for the Mediterranean in 2008) to promote political stability and increase trade ties among the European, Asian and African countries that border the Mediterranean.
Paris is currently supporting the rebels in Syria and hopes to play a central role in that country's postwar transition. France wants to participate in the economic reconstruction and the political realignment of Syria after the fall of President Bashar al Assad. Doing so would bring economic opportunities for French companies and political opportunities for the French government to increase their sphere of influence in the Levant. French companies have seen their interests damaged by the instability in Syria and by international sanctions against Damascus.
France also fears that the events in Syria could destabilize Lebanon, decreasing the political and economic influence Paris holds in the region. Lebanon is held together by a loose coalition of adversarial parties. Should the delicate balance among them falter, the equilibrium of power in the Middle East — and France's interests in the region — could be threatened. This could, in turn, disrupt oil markets.
However, France is not the only actor interested in Syria's postwar period. Paris wants to minimize the influence of external powers, such as Iran and Turkey, in post-Assad Syria, and also scale back the influence of Islamist groups in the country. The U.N. Interim Force is currently minimizing its presence in Lebanon because it hopes to increase the responsibility of the Lebanese Army. Although the French presence was reduced from 1,300 to 900 troops this year, Paris is committed to maintaining some military forces in Lebanon. Paris fears that a full withdrawal from Lebanon would threaten stability in the country and reduce French influence in the region. For geopolitical reasons, France needs a stable Lebanon that has a solid rapport with the West.
Paris' interest in Lebanon and Syria also grows out of France's own domestic politics. After winning the presidency with a campaign that promised economic growth and increased employment opportunities, Hollande's popularity is falling as the French begin to feel the effects of the economic crisis. Moreover, France's commitment to the European Union — most notably, the fiscal compact treaty that obliges France to introduce a deficit limit to meet the European target — is generating discontent among junior partners in the coalition government.
In this context, Hollande hopes to draw focus away from economic issues. One way to do that is to demonstrate leadership in foreign policy issues. This partly explains Hollande's harsh rhetoric against the Syrian regime, his push for greater economic sanctions against Iran, and the recent rapprochement with Lebanon. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy applied a similar strategy in 2011, when France and the United Kingdom led the international military intervention in Libya.
Hollande's interest in Lebanon is the result of long-term geopolitical interests as well as immediate political needs. When Paris promises military and economic aid to Beirut, it does so with one eye on Syria and the other on its own domestic requirements.