French President Emanuel Macron consoles a distraught woman during his tour of Beirut. Credit: ABC News.

The French president made his way slowly through a crowded street in the ruins of Beirut, his handlers struggling to keep the throng at bay, a pointless action as people surged to get a glimpse of the world leader.

Suddenly, a distraught woman called out to him, straining to get his attention. In French, she pleaded for help and justice, blaming years of corruption and mismanagement in government.

Emmanuel Macron’s gaze was fixed, he listened to every word, promising he would do what he could to help Beirut and Lebanon.

Reminiscent of a young Bobby Kennedy, and wearing a shirt and black tie with sleeves rolled up, he told her: “I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here.”

Finally, the president broke the security cordon and Covid precautions, hugging the tearful woman. The crowd erupted in applause and expressions of gratitude.

This was Macron’s moment. A historical scene played around the world. Perhaps too, a masterful piece of statesmanship, but let’s hope the gesture was true.

Macron’s move to boost his country’s influence in Lebanon has shown a French president with the confidence, and political instinct, to seize his moment on the world stage, The Guardian reported.

Two days after the devastating explosion tore through Beirut Macron toured the site of the blast and some of the capital’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods.

Making the first visit by a foreign leader since the disaster, he was greeted with cheers in the streets of Beirut as he promised urgent international aid — but not without radical reform of a political class widely seen as corrupt and incompetent, The Guardian reported.

A vocal defender of liberal values and high-profile player in world affairs since his 2017 election, Macron relished the moment, prompting comparisons with a celebrated 1996 walkabout through Jerusalem’s old city by the late president Jacques Chirac.

The president’s domestic opponents were quick to accuse him of neo-colonialist grandstanding, but analysts were generally impressed.

“This will remain a major moment in Macron’s foreign policy,” said Le Monde’s diplomatic correspondent, Piotr Smolar. “Both in terms of images – the crowds calling France to the rescue – and words, extremely harsh, directed at the Lebanese ruling class. Claims of interference are understandable, but shaky.”

Benjamin Haddad, of the Atlantic Council, tweeted: “History counts. France has a special link to Lebanon, a historic responsibility. The pictures of Emmanuel Macron in Beirut are moving and powerful. The world is watching.”

In Lebanon, a former French protectorate, Macron’s assured — and reassuring — performance won popular applause. By late on Thursday nearly 60,000 people had signed an online petition demanding the country “be placed under a French mandate for the next 10 years,” The Guardian reported.

Three years into his term, Macron, whose pragmatic approach to foreign affairs one analyst has defined as “dealing with the world as it is, while making clear what you stand for,” struts the global arena with a conviction – if not always the results — that has led some to see him as a white knight of the liberal world order.

At home, he is still battling a critical, if not outright hostile, French public generally unconvinced by his at times arrogant, aloof and imperious style. He is opposed, sometimes violently, for his pro-business reforms aimed at spurring growth, creating jobs and deregulating the economy, The Guardian reported.

But his popularity surged in recent weeks after he clinched a deal with other EU leaders on a €750 billion European coronavirus economic recovery package and reshuffled his government; his approval rating rose by six percentage points in one poll, reaching 50% for only the second time in more than two years.

In Beirut on Thursday he also displayed a talent for retail politics that he is rarely able to deploy in France, promising a cheering crowds to deliver some “home truths” to the Lebanese government, The Guardian reported.

Macron said he would “never interfere in Lebanese politics” but seek a “new political deal” from the country’s leaders, pressing hard for change. “I am going to talk to them … I will hold them accountable,” he said.

Meanwhile, a military judge leading the investigation into Tuesday’s blast said 16 employees of Beirut’s port, where the explosion took place, had been detained. He said 18 had been questioned, including port and customs officials, CTV News reported.

A US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III also landed at Beirut’s airport Thursday with the first pallets of relief supplies from Al Udeid Air Base in the Gulf state of Qatar, bringing 11 pallets of food, water and medical supplies, Military.com reported.

“We are closely coordinating with the Lebanon Armed Forces, and expect that we will continue to provide additional assistance throughout Lebanon’s recovery effort,” Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of CENTCOM, said in a statement.

Two more CENTCOM C-17 relief flights are expected to reach Beirut by Friday.

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