France Trying to Get “Back in the Game”

Editor’s Note:  Taking over the Lebanon desk at MediaShack will be Blackstar, an international lawyer based in London. 

French Prime Minister François Fillon is presently in Lebanon for a two-day visit with a full program of diplomatic activities. While his own office has described_the_trip as one aimed at helping the re-launching of economic life of Lebanon (Fillon is accompanied by fifty French business leaders and will meet with local businessmen), it appears more logical to view it as part of Sarkozy’s foreign policy agenda of re-launching France as a power-broker in the region. Economics aside, Fillon’s visit is important for two things:

I.  He will be signing, on France’s behalf, a military cooperation agreement in virtue of which France will provide training to Lebanon’s army.

This first item is attached to the (attempted) consolidation of France’s political role within Lebanon.  If anything, there seems to be a sense that France should supplant the US as the go-to foreign power when tensions arise locally and an outside arbitrator is sought.   Couple this with Sarkozy’s pro-Mediterranean foreign policy, and France’s historic and cultural links with Lebanon, the political capital invested might actually convert into a much greater influence in Lebanon’s internal matters, and perhaps one less polarizing than that of the US.

Another thing to wonder about regarding this Franco-Lebanese military cooperation agreement is how it will be viewed by the US and, by extension, Israel.   As has been discussed  previously on Media Shack,  the US has provided and has promised to continue providing the Lebanese army with tactical support and equipment.  This support has largely been seen as insufficient to prop up the army enough to drive Hezbollah’s military arm out of business.  The question to ask, therefore, is whether the US will try to impede or put conditions on France’s promised support to the Lebanese army.   The information available so far is that France is providing “training”.  Perhaps this will be felt as less threatening to Israel from a security perspective than shipments of sophisticated weaponry and technology.

II.  What intrigues me more about Fillon’s visit, however, is a snipet  from Naharnet  which basically states that France supports Lebanon holding talks with Israel about the “normalization” of Hezbollah.

My scouring of Middle Eastern and French media headlines could not provide me with any more details on this point.   For one, it seems strange that France tells Lebanon to talk to Israel when the subjects of any negotiations between the two so intimately and directly concern Syria and cannot be settled without Syria’s involvement.  Also, what is meant exactly by  “normalization”? Both in theory and in practice, Hezbollah is “normalized” in Lebanon.  But how can a party within a state be normalized vis-à-vis another state? And what exactly can or should France to do to assist in this?  I think regardless of the angle from which you look at the word, the obvious definition in this context would be the demilitarization of Hezbollah, and perhaps we can accuse the editors at Naharnet of dodgy semantics. There might be more reporting on this tomorrow as Fillon’s trip unfolds. If any readers have found anything else on this subject, I’d be very interested in seeing it.