Since the August 4 explosion in Beirut, Paris has sought to take an active role in helping its former colony’s recovery, and overseeing political reform. One major obstacle is Hizballah, which, in Matthew Levitt’s words, serves “as the militant defender of the corruption and cronyism of the current government system.” While France has historically been reluctant to confront the terrorist group, its president seems to be losing patience:
In late September 2020, Hizballah threw a wrench into . . . Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to stabilize the Lebanese political system . . . by insisting that the party or its allies remain in control of key ministries as a condition of any future government or program of political reform. . . . President Macron’s response was uncharacteristically blunt for a French politician speaking about Hizballah. In a public statement, [he] said, “Hizballah cannot operate at the same time as an army against Israel, a militia unleashed against civilians in Syria, and a respectable political party in Lebanon.”
In the past three decades, the Iran-backed guerrilla group has repeatedly attacked French soldiers in the Middle East and French civilians at home—most notably by carrying out a number of bombings in Paris during a nine-month period in the mid-1980s. As Levitt explains, France has responded with a policy of appeasement, first refusing to consider Hizballah a terrorist group, and, once it finally did, insisting on a meaningless distinction between its illegal “military wing” and its legitimate “political” one:
By the 1990s, . . . French decisionmakers . . . opted not to cross Hizballah or Iran and risk terrorist retaliation. Today, a primary concern French officials articulate about designating Hizballah in its entirety is that the group could retaliate by striking French forces serving in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In fact, many countries have designated Hizballah in full, and in no case did the group respond with retaliatory attacks. Moreover, regardless of whether France were to designate Hizballah in full, the group already targets French soldiers attached to UNIFIL.
Indeed, while France has been effectively deterred from taking action against Hizballah, the group periodically works to undermine French interests in Lebanon.
One primary reason Hizballah engages in such brazen activity is that it believes it can get away with it. Indeed, failure to hold Hizballah accountable for its illicit conduct has not prompted any moderation in the group’s behavior, but rather has emboldened it to amplify its aggressiveness. That is true in Lebanon, and it is true in France.