PARIS - Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri is at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris where he is in discussion with French President Emmanuel Macron who has offered to help Hariri resolve his role in the bizarre Lebanese political drama.
Earlier this month, Hariri resigned from office on Saudi TV, sparking turmoil and skepticism.
However, earlier Saturday, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said Hariri called Lebanese President Michel Aoun to tell him he will return to Lebanon next week to participate in Independence Day celebrations.
It is unclear if Hariri and Macron will make any remarks to the media Saturday.
Hariri was welcomed "as prime minister" of Lebanon, as his resignation is not recognized by his country, Macron said from Sweden on Friday.
‘Behind the scenes’
The French president previously dismissed speculation he offered Hariri exile. But some are not so sure.
“I think it’s hugely uncertain now about what is happening behind the scenes,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “What (Hariri’s) plans are after this, and the nature of this deal is hugely questionable.”
Hariri’s departure from Saudi Arabia caps two tumultuous weeks since he announced his resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister from Riyadh on November 4, blaming Iran and Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government, for the move and saying he feared for his life.
The announcement has highlighted the deep political fractures in Lebanon, torn between the competing influences of Shi’ite Tehran and Sunni Riyadh, and unleashed accusations the Saudis were detaining Hariri against his will.
“Lebanon will have to overcome this big obstacle,” Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said on Friday of Hariri’s departure for Paris predicting a “door will open to more stability.”
Hariri’s visit clearly marks a diplomatic coup for 39-year-old French President Macron and his broader bid to reassert France on the world stage. That includes the Middle East, where Macron paid a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia last week at the height of the Hariri crisis, after inaugurating the new Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi.
The opening was seen by some observers as a manifestation of French “soft power” in the region.
“It’s certainly an achievement for Macron,” Barnes-Dacey said of Hariri’s impending visit to France, which he noted also reflected a “backtracking” by Saudi Arabia in letting the Lebanese leader go.
If the move helps to stabilize the crisis, he added, “I think that will be seen as a very successful French initiative.”
Others are skeptical about the potential payback.
“It’s a nice diplomatic coup for France,” Middle East analyst Karim Emile Bitar told French radio, describing France’s invitation as face-saving for both Riyadh and Hariri. But, he added, “it doesn't solve much.”
If Hariri does indeed go into exile, it would not be a first for Lebanese officials.
Hariri spent three years residing in France and Saudi Arabia after the national unity government he then headed collapsed, in 2011.
France has also been home to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, during his own 15-year exile that ended in 2005.
Beyond tapping historic French ties and influence in Lebanon, Macron is reaping the success of a more rebalanced French policy in the Middle East, some analysts say.
Even as his administration reaffirms its relations with powerful Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- Macron met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman last week and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi last month -- the French president is also mulling a visit next year to Tehran, where French businesses are scrambling to invest.
“France is harvesting the fruits of its new diplomatic doctrine in the Middle East,” Middle East expert Hadrien Desuin wrote in Le Figaro newspaper of Macron’s ability to secure Hariri’s visit. “It’s a more balanced position between the Sunnis and Shi'ites that provides fresh air.”
The Trump administration may also be carving out another opportunity for Macron, analyst Barnes-Dacey says.
“There’s clearly a vacuum of any U.S. willingness to pay a mediating role and diffuse some of these regional crises,” he said. “That gives room for someone like President Macron, who’s keen to be an activist president and punch French weight globally.”
“You can see that with Lebanon," he added.