In Beirut on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the scene of the massive explosion that killed at least 137 people and left some 5,000 wounded.
As he walked through the historic Gemmayzeh neighbourhood with its century-old buildings – many now destroyed or unsafe – he spoke to the victims and consoled people with frayed nerves.
He did this before any local official came there – two days after the massive explosion ripped through the city and upended life here.
“You are sitting with warlords, they have been manipulating us for the past years,” a woman told Macron, who would meet with the country’s top leaders later in the day.
“I’m not here to help them, I’m here to help you,” he replied, before they entered into a long, silent embrace.
Macron’s short visit to Beirut was heavy with emotion and symbolism. During his welcome at Beirut’s airport with President Michel Aoun, the electricity cut – a common occurrence in a country with perennial power cuts, but an embarrassing sign of decades of mismanagement.
When Macron went to survey the damage, he engaged with the rescue workers. In Gemmayze, he was surrounded by scores of people who urged him to help Lebanon, but refrain from giving any aid to the country’s ossified political class, many of whom are former belligerents in the country’s civil war that ended in 1990.
“Don’t give money to our government,” one man shouted repeatedly. “You are our only hope,” another said.
Lebanon’s Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem attempted to visit the site later on, but was sprayed with water and pushed out of the area by dozens of protesters who chanted “resign”.
When Najem stopped to try to speak with protesters, their screams blocked out her voice, more water was thrown at her, and she finally turned away.
But protesters seemed to feel like Macron was on their side. “Revolution!” they chanted jubilantly as he walked through the Gemmayze street.
“Michel Aoun is a terrorist,” they added, referring to Lebanon’s 85-year-old president.
In meetings with top officials, Macron “did not mince words; he told them that they need to get their act together and that it can’t go on like this,” a source with knowledge of the meeting told Al Jazeera. “It was extremely frank.”
That air of frankness was carried on to a news conference in the evening, when Macron was asked about comments by Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab that charged the French foreign minister, during a visit last month, of having a “lack of knowledge” of government reforms.
“I felt today that the Lebanese people didn’t have knowledge of the reforms, either,” he said.
Several times throughout Macron’s press conference, local journalists clapped for him. After he was done, they harangued him for selfies. One woman began crying as she spoke to him, and he comforted her.
“Sad and awkward. But first time I felt a bit of hope & comfort after this trauma, was when a French leader came to my country & said words that showed he understood my fears & was determined to help me feel secure again,” Twitter user Sara Assaf wrote. “Not one Lebanese leader was able to do the same.”
Source: Al Jazeera