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Let’s be Franc

Destiny has decidedly placed France and Lebanon together on countless occasions. It did during the 23-year mandate the hegemon held over the cedar nation after World War I. It did when François Mitterrand sent troops to alleviate the Beirut siege of 1983. And it did during the Paris conference to pledge international assistance for Lebanon’s recovery after the 2006 war. Even Charles de Gaulle, who spent two years of his life in Beirut, once referred to the Lebanese as “the only people whose heart has never stopped beating at the same rhythm of France’s heart.”

That same rhythm keeps its vitality in a nation that prides itself on its francophone past, which maintains French as one of its educational and business languages, and with a capital city that holds to its “Paris of the Middle East” epithet. French influence has persisted through the decades, and it is visible in the modern Lebanese lifestyle, from education to healthcare and from banking to fashion.

Today, Lebanon counts 1.9 million francophones, representing 45% of the country’s population, and it has been a member state of the International Organization of La Francophonie since 1973. The country also hosts one of three annual Francophone Book Fairs, which has been running for 22 years and serves as the regional summit for French speakers throughout the Middle East. In 2015 alone, the Beirut Francophone Book Fair saw more than 70,000 attendees.

France ranks fourth among Lebanon’s trade partners with an annual exchange of $1.2 billion, an increase of nearly 20% year-on-year since 2010. It is also one of the largest investors in Lebanon, with an FDI amounting to USD272 million, and is the largest recipient of Lebanese investments with USD3.7 million, according to figures from Banque de France.

The French connection serves as the focal point of bilateral relations between Lebanon and Europe. The French government was the main promoter among European nations for the signature of the Lebanon-EU Association Agreement in 2002, which ultimately granted free access for Lebanese agricultural and industrial products to the EU market once it was enacted in 2006. The agreement has catapulted trade between both parties to a total of $7.8 billion with year-on-year growth at 12% between 2008 and 2015. This year marks the 10th year of the agreement, and its major success has been turning the EU into Lebanon’s most prominent trade partner, with a 34% share of the country’s total trade, more than any GCC country. It is also under this scheme that Lebanon has benefited from the European Neighborhood Policy, which provided an assistance package of $178 million between 2014 and 2016, designated to the sustainable development of maritime resources, upgrading waste management capacities, building national stability, and providing water services to vulnerable populations.
In April 2015, the bilateral relationship received an influx of vitality when French President François Hollande made a state visit to Lebanon amid the country’s political crisis. The visit was particularly important, as the French government has been a main advocate for a solution to the presidential vacuum.

The visit was also marked by the announcement that USD112 million would be granted to Lebanon over the following three years to help the country cope with the Syrian refugee crisis and to strengthen the Lebanese military in light of the ongoing conflict in Syria. President Hollande pledged the assistance of the international community to contribute to Lebanon’s efforts in hosting over 1.5 million Syrian refugees, which has severely impacted the country’s already troubled economy. On top of that, France will host an international donors meeting in the coming weeks to further increase contributions to Lebanon.

Bilateral ties with France are today, as they always have been, crucial to the foreign relations of Lebanon. As President Hollande said during his visit, “We owe our solidarity to Lebanon, for the lines that unite France and Lebanon involve history, culture, a common language, and economy, but overall they involve the human spirit.”

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