Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—France is set to send its top Middle East official on a tour of the region in early January in a fresh round of diplomatic efforts to end the presidential deadlock in Lebanon, French sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The move comes as Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam on Wednesday called Lebanese rival political blocs to facilitate the election of a new president as soon as possible after historical Hezbollah-Future Movement dialogue kicked off earlier this week after four years of total estrangement.
“I repeat that all factions are asked to deploy utmost efforts to ensure the president’s election, because matters cannot continue as they are at present,” Salam said following a meeting with meeting with Patriarch Beshara Rai at the seat of the Maronite Church in Bkirki.
“The prime minister and the government are trying to fill in but the country won’t settle and matters will remain stagnant as long as the [vacuum] persists,” Salam added.
Head of the French Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department Jean-François Girault will visit Riyadh on January 5 to discuss ways to resolve Lebanon’s ongoing political crisis following the latest Hezbollah-Future Movement talks, the diplomatic sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.
According to the French diplomat, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, Girault will also visit Tehran and the Vatican as part of French efforts to break the deadlock.
Lebanon has been without a president since former Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s term in office ended on May 2014. Lebanon’s parliament has been unable to come to a consensus on a successor, with the Hezbollah-led-March 8 Alliance backing Michel Aoun and the Future Movement-led-March 14 Alliance throwing its weight behind Samir Geagea.
Girault will focus his diplomatic efforts on Saudi Arabia and Iran, the only two regional powers with the clout to bring Lebanon’s rival political blocs to the negotiating table.
The French diplomatic source said that Paris is “optimistic” about the chances of ending the months-long parliamentary stalemate, citing Tehran’s recent “flexibility” on key regional issues, including the Syrian crisis, as well as the recent Hezbollah-Future Movement dialogue.
In a key shift from its staunch backing of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad over the past three and a half years, Tehran recently announced its support of Russian efforts to bring the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table.
“Moving Lebanon out of the [presidential] deadlock will not be easy given the need to untangle it from the regional crisis,” the French diplomatic source added, in reference to the conflict that is raging in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and which has spilled across the borders into Lebanon.
The crisis in Syria has taken a heavy toll on its tiny neighbor who has seen its basic infrastructure being squeezed by the constant flow of Syrian refugees into the country and its security and military forces hit by a wave of insurgent attacks.
In the worst threat to Lebanon’s security, insurgents affiliated with Syrian Islamist groups attacked the strategic border town of Arsal in August, killing dozen soldiers and kidnapping 29 security officers.
Although France does not particularly favor either of the two main candidates, Paris is seeking to bring the Lebanese sides to agree on a “consensus” figure with no domestic or regional affiliations, the French diplomat said.
Paris is counting on the Vatican to facilitate Girault’s task among Lebanon’s Christian political elite. According to Lebanon’s sectarian-based political quota system, the president of the republic must be a Maronite Christian.
The French diplomat informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the Vatican informed Girault that it will seek to convince the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance to reconsider its backing of Aoun. However Girault must also convince Iran—which is backing Hezbollah—to agree on a “consensus” presidential candidate .
Meanwhile, the Vatican said it holds Lebanon’s Christian political class responsible for the ongoing presidential vacuum which is comprising the prominent status Christians used to enjoy not just in Lebanon but across the Arab Mashriq, an Arab diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The Arab diplomat, also speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Vatican is considering an “initiative” to end the political stalemate in Lebanon, but refused to give further details.