French President Emmanuel Macron called for political reforms in Lebanon on Tuesday, as the former French mandate marked its centenary amid a political and economic crisis.
Macron is also due to meet President Michel Aoun for a centenary reception and meetings with Lebanon's various factions.
Macron kicked off his visit to Lebanon — his second since the deadly Beirut blast — on Monday by spending more than an hour with popular singer Fairuz, a unifying figure in Lebanon. He also planted a cedar tree, Lebanon's national symbol, to express "confidence in the future of the country," his office said in a statement.
Read more: In Lebanon, a political coalition forms after Beirut blast
Macron was greeted outside Fairuz's home by protesters who held placards reading "No cabinet by, or with, the murderers," and "Don't be on the wrong side of history!"
In a colorful display, the French air force also flew overhead, leaving a trail of red, white and green smoke — the color of Lebanon's national flag.
Macron later visited Beirut port, the site of the blast that killed more than 180 people, wounded at least 6,500 others and destroyed entire districts of the capital.
He also met with around 400 French soldiers working with the Lebanese army to clear thousands of tons of debris from the vitally important port, which imports 85% of Lebanon's food stocks.
Read more: Lebanon at 'risk of disappearing' without reforms, warns France
Late on Monday, Macron additionally met with former prime minister Saad Hariri at the Ottoman-era residence of the French ambassador, from whose porch Lebanon's modern borders were proclaimed 100 years ago.
Time to 'enact real reforms'
He is also set to meet with the political leaders who are widely blamed for the August 4 explosion, which was caused by a stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that had been held in the port for several years. Upon his arrival on Monday, Macron said his position towards Lebanon's political establishment "is unchanged: demanding without interfering."
Read more: Beirut's cultural scene damaged by explosion
If Lebanon hopes to unlock desperately needed international assistance, political leaders must enact "real reforms" long demanded by donors, he said. "If we do not do this, the Lebanese economy will collapse" and "the only victim will be the Lebanese people, who cannot go into exile," he warned on Friday, ahead of the visit.
Macron decried Lebanon's chronic systemic corruption and said the country desperately needs to reform its energy and banking sectors as well as its justice system. The French president said of Lebanon's future, "Everything is there, but change will require political will."
In the hours before Macron's arrival, Lebanon designated a new prime minister, Mustapha Adib, reaching a consensus among major parties that senior Lebanese politicians said was decided under pressure from Macron.
After being designated on Monday, Adib called for the rapid formation of a government, the immediate implementation of reforms and an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
With its economy in deep crisis and reeling from last month's blast, Lebanon is facing the biggest threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war. Since October, the currency has collapsed, people's savings have been frozen, and poverty and unemployment have been on the rise.
Read more: Will protests after Beirut blast bring reform to Lebanon?
lc/stb (AP, AFP, Reuters)