French Securite Civile (Civil Security) personnel board a plane near Paris, as France sends search and rescue experts aboard three military planes loaded with a mobile clinic and medical equipment to Beirut, a day after a powerful explosion there
Paris (AFP) - President Emmanuel Macron will seek to rally urgent aid for Lebanon but is also expected to press for overdue reform in France's ex-colony on the first visit by a world leader to Beirut after the deadly port blast.
His trip on Thursday comes just two days after the blast -- blamed on an unsecured store of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port -- killed over 100 people and destroyed entire neighbourhoods.
It was the latest blow to a country already reeling from an unprecedented economic crisis and political turbulence.
But the apparent negligence that led to the blast has only amplified exasperation with the political elite across Lebanon's different confessional communities.
"I will go to Beirut tomorrow (Thursday) to bring the Lebanese people a message of fraternity and solidarity from the French," Macron wrote on Twitter.
"We will discuss the situation with the political authorities," he added.
The president's Elysee Palace office said Macron will "meet all political actors", including President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
"The fact that Emmanuel Macron has so rapidly taken the bull by the horns and is coming to Beirut is being warmly welcomed in Lebanon," said Karim Emile Bitar, professor of international relations at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
He said the visit recalled that of the trip made by former president Jacques Chirac in the wake of the assassination of tycoon and former premier Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005.
Both sides will be hoping it goes more smoothly than a trip last month by France's top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian, who scolded Lebanon's political elite for being too "passive" in the face of an economic crisis compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the aftermath of that visit, Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned in protest at his government's lack of crisis management.
- 'No lifeline' -
Le Drian had reaffirmed the message from his own Beirut trip that reforms were essential for Lebanon to move on.
"The country has the necessary strength to recover -- what is needed is that a certain number of reforms are put in place," he said.
Bitar said the visit should not in anyway serve as a "lifeline" for Lebanon's political class but continue the pressure for reform from unprecedented protests last year.
"Aid needs to be made conditional on structural reform and reform of the Lebanese political system so that a new political class emerges," he told AFP.
Analysts say the sheer fact that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were left unsecured in a warehouse close to the city centre demands immediate answers from those ruling Lebanon.
Valerie Levallois, vice president of the Institute of Research on the Mediterranean and Middle East (IREMMO), said France knew that Lebanon's political system was "running out of breath".
But she expressed concern Macron would not give a "clear message" on the visit and instead "continue this fiction that there is a Lebanese state when there is not one.
"If there was a functioning state, this explosion would never have happened," she added.
- 'Food needed' -
Even beyond the present humanitarian emergency, Lebanon's needs are massive: Beirut governor Marwan Aboud told AFP the estimated cost of the damage from the explosion was between $3.0 billion and $5.0 billion.
Two military planes were to leave from Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris with 55 search and rescue personnel on board and 25 tonnes of medical supplies.
A third plane, provided by the chief executive of shipping giant CMA-CGM Rodolphe Saade who is of Lebanese origin, took off from Marseille with medical equipment and a nine-strong medical team.
Le Drian said the destruction of silos holding grain in the blast was a particular concern.
"There will also be a food need that is indispensable because the grain silos themselves exploded."
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization expressed fear Wednesday that the destruction of the silos would result in critical flour shortages.
Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz meanwhile said at least 21 French citizens were injured in the blast and prosecutors had opened a probe into "negligent injury" using their jurisdiction to investigate acts committed abroad.