French envoy warns Lebanese leaders against 'collective suicide'

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) meets French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, May 6, 2021. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) - France's foreign minister threatened to step up pressure against Lebanese politicians he accused of committing "collective suicide" by failing to pull the country out of its economic meltdown.

On a visit to Beirut, Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters on Friday that France, which has led foreign aid efforts to Lebanon, had to act in the face of the political impasse, months into a deadlock in cabinet talks.

If it persists, he said, there would be strict punitive measures, at the French and potentially the European Union level, against Lebanese officials blocking progress. He did not answer questions on who would be affected or when.

"What I can tell you is that for us, the test period of responsibility is over. So we have decided to reinforce pressure," Le Drian said. "We have started to initiate restrictive measures. Those who are targeted will know it."

France, the former colonial ruler in Lebanon, has grown frustrated after failed attempts to rally the country's feuding leaders to agree a new cabinet or launch reforms to unlock badly-needed foreign aid.

The currency has crashed since 2019, the banking sector is paralysed and much of the population is now poor.

Last month, Paris said it was taking measures to restrict entry for some Lebanese officials for blocking efforts to tackle the unprecedented crisis, which is rooted in decades of corruption and indebtedness.

There has been no official announcement of what steps France has taken, or against whom, and the potential impact remains unclear as several Lebanese politicians hold dual nationality.

Le Drian's trip included meeting activists as well as visiting schools and Beirut port, where a massive explosion last August killed 200 people. The caretaker government resigned over the devastating blast.

A standoff over the cabinet line-up between President Michel Aoun and three-time premier Saad al-Hariri, who was designated to form a government in October, has since deepened.

Le Drian said he told Aoun, Hariri and longtime Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in meetings on Wednesday he was there to support the Lebanese people and the logjam must end. "I am here to avoid this collective suicide orchestrated by some," he said.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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