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As French president visits Beirut, Lebanese ask where their leaders are

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                                French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon.


    French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon.

BEIRUT >> Visiting a neighborhood ravaged by this week’s giant explosion in Beirut’s port, the president looked residents in the eye, vowed to send food and pursue a new political initiative, expressed sorrow for the lives lost and shoved aside a bodyguard to give a woman a hug.

The only hitch was that he was the president of France, not Lebanon.

Less than 48 hours after the blast that shook Lebanon’s capital, killed at least 145 people and left entire neighborhoods virtually uninhabitable, President Emmanuel Macron of France today did what no senior Lebanese politician has: He came to see the suffering firsthand.

The distinction was not lost on the Lebanese. As they clean the rubble from their streets and homes, bury their dead and ponder where the billions needed to fix their capital will come, they have seen few signs that their political leaders will help in their time of need.

“I don’t want France to send money to these corrupt people,” said Khalil Honein, sitting outside his damaged auto parts store near where Macron had walked. “Let him take all these politicians with him, or let him be our president!”

As the toll from Tuesday’s blast — and the indications of governmental neglect that led to it — become increasingly clear, the recovery effort has been largely shouldered by Lebanese citizens, while countries across the globe have chipped in.

Today alone, Cyprus, the neighboring island nation where many felt the blast, sent doctors. Denmark sent cash. Italy, Jordan and China sent medics and medical equipment. The United Nations announced that it was releasing $9 million to aid Beirut’s hospitals, three of which were blown out of commission by the explosion.

It was unclear how much those contributions would address the tremendous needs left by the explosion, which registered as a minor earthquake in neighboring countries, displaced more than 250,000 people from their homes and came on the heels of a financial crisis that had sent many Lebanese sliding toward poverty before the blast hit. Beirut’s governor estimated the damage at $3 billion.

In many of the hardest-hit areas, foreign crews joined armies of Lebanese volunteers to distribute food and help people clear the glass and rubble from their homes and streets.

“It’s an individual initiative,” said Joelle Debs, a member of a volunteer group that was distributing sandwiches and wielding shovels and brooms. “We’re not expecting much from the government or the municipality.”

At times, the cleanup crews would erupt with anger at the government they blamed for destroying the neighborhood, chanting, “Revolution! Revolution!” or shouting profanities about President Michel Aoun.

Anger at the country’s ruling class has been rising since last fall, when protests broke out in Beirut and other cities calling for its ouster because of years of mismanagement and corruption.

Since then, a financial crisis has sent the Lebanese currency into a steep dive and shaken the economy, increasing unemployment. Lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus increased the economic pain.

Then Tuesday’s explosion hit, followed by indications that it was caused by the accidental combustion of 2,750 tons of explosive chemicals that had been stored in the port since 2014, despite multiple warnings from port officials that they were dangerous.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab has vowed to hold accountable anyone found responsible for the blast after an investigation, but the government has released few details on its findings so far.

Today, the central bank said it had frozen the accounts of the heads of the Beirut port and the Lebanese customs authority and five others, presumably in connection with the investigation.

But many Lebanese doubt that real accountability will be achieved in a country where top politicians, enriched through corruption, live in guarded enclaves and are usually seen in public only when their armored convoys of black SUVs with tinted windows zoom through traffic.

None of them have set foot in the neighborhoods most damaged in the blast, but some have been caught up in public anger elsewhere.

On Wednesday, protesters rushed the convoy of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose bodyguards tackled a woman who kicked one of the vehicles.

The conspicuous absence of political leaders drew a sharp contrast to Macron’s presence.

Wearing a skinny black tie with his sleeves rolled up, Macron toured the blast site and waded into the crowd that had gathered in a hard-hit neighborhood to see him.

At times pulling down the surgical mask he wore to protect against the coronavirus, he chatted with residents, waved to groups watching from balconies and gave fist bumps to people filming him with their phones.

“I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain,” he told one group, speaking of the deep historic ties between their countries, which go back to when Lebanon was a French colony. “This is why I’m here.”

He vowed to marshal aid for the displaced and promised that it would “not go to corrupt hands,” an indirect dig at Lebanon’s politicians.

Bystanders shouted insults at Aoun and chanted for the toppling of the government. Macron said he planned to talk to the country’s leaders about “a new political pact.”

“What is also needed here is political change,” he said. “This explosion should be the start of a new era.”

Before leaving Lebanon, Macron said he had presented Lebanese leaders with a list of urgent reforms that needed to be carried out to unlock billions of dollars in international funds.

He said that France would organize an international donors conference and ensure transparency to make sure that aid reached the people instead of being siphoned off by the country’s power brokers.

Lebanon had failed to make progress on the reforms required to release the last batch of promised international funds, and some commentators wondered how much Macron’s stroll in Beirut had been intended for domestic consumption in France.

But many Lebanese were charmed by his retail politics, especially compared to what they saw from their own politicians. An online petition made the rounds imploring him to “place Lebanon under French mandate for the next 10 years.”

“We’re asking for the president of France to take over Lebanon,” said a cleanup volunteer who had just signed it, Jana Harb, 17. “Just throw away the government. There’s no future here for us if the current politicians stay. We’d rather get colonized than die here.”

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