French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy traveled to Beirut, Lebanon, on July 17. While France has economic and political reasons to calm the blazing situation in its former colonial sphere of influence, this nominal push for diplomacy will only facilitate Israel's objective of destroying Hezbollah.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 17 to "express France's solidarity with the Lebanese government and people." France is at the end of the Gaullist era, with French President Jacques Chirac and de Villepin the last in the line of politicians who defined France as a power in opposition to the United States. In France, this pair of lame ducks has been limping from political defeat to political defeat back home for more than a year now, beginning with the defeat of the European constitution, which was quickly followed by the Arab race riots, a slander scandal and now an Airbus debacle. Bereft of possibilities for a domestic political revival — or even a positively spun interview — they now must venture abroad to get anything resembling good press. Ergo, a trip to Beirut. Though the only photo opportunities might be of the evacuation of a former colonial outpost, at this point de Villepin and Chirac will take what they can get. Beyond domestic politics, it is no secret that France is not pleased with the situation in Lebanon, and not just because of Israel's "disproportionate" use of force, as French President Jacques Chirac has called it. France was the most recent colonial power in Lebanon, so it has close ties to the bulk of the national government, particularly the Maronite Christians. Some 17,000 Lebanese enjoy French citizenship, while another 10,000 Frenchmen live in the country full-time. France has heavy business interests in Lebanon and does not wish to see Lebanon's core infrastructure undergo further destruction by Israeli warplanes. Economically speaking, France has a real incentive to work toward scaling down the conflict. It is questionable, however, whether France's influence in Beirut will be even remotely sufficient to push the Lebanese government to establish a buffer zone in southern Lebanon and forcibly disarm Hezbollah. Even devastating Hezbollah's capabilities will not eliminate the militant group from the Lebanese landscape, and any attempt to seize Shiite territory from Hezbollah control will quickly become a bloody mess. This does not mean the French approve of Hezbollah's actions — far from it. When the French founded modern Lebanon, they set up a governing structure that maximized Maronite control, but moderated it with influence from all of the other major sectarian groups. All but one, that is: the largely impoverished Lebanese Shia were mostly kept out of the equation. That explicit exclusion — especially after a Shiite population boom made the original constitutional deals, based on the various factions' populations, look silly — was a leading reason behind the radicalization of the Shia and the rise of Hezbollah. Like many, the French prefer to have Hezbollah gone, or at least disarmed. But more than that, they want this conflict to end as quickly as possible. What they lack is a means of pushing for such results. France last deployed troops to Lebanon in the 1980s and withdrew in much the same limping manner the United States did. France has no stomach for militarily engaging Hezbollah, and with Chirac so weak, the idea of entering into a controversial and violent conflict in a place that carries as much historical baggage as Lebanon is an outright impossibility. The best France can offer is a commitment of troops for monitoring a buffer zone in the south after the fighting stops and Hezbollah has been restricted to the Bekaa Valley. Meanwhile, Israel can use the French visit — and de Villepin and Douste-Blazy's calls for negotiations and informal offers of good offices — to promote the idea that the Israeli government is seriously trying to pursue the diplomatic route and entertain ways of scaling down the conflict. Thus far, the Israelis have held back from launching a full-scale ground incursion into Lebanon to achieve their objective of devastating Hezbollah's capabilities. The rocket fire into Israel will not cease despite these diplomatic efforts, and Israel will encourage these final diplomatic maneuvers as it prepares for a ground invasion into Lebanon.