French leader Le Pen visits Beirut as she eyes Elysée Palace
Written by Malek

Marine Le Pen with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun

Lebanese president Michel Aoun, right, meets with far right leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, center left, and French lawmaker Gilbert Collard, left, at the presidential palace, in Baabda east Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. Le Pen has arrived in Beirut to meet with the Lebanese head of state and leading Christian figures. The National Front leader is hoping to burnish her credentials as a defender of Christians in the Middle East, ahead of France's April 23 presidential elections. Photo: Hussein Malla, AP / Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Le Pen, who is trying to establish international credentials as part of her current bid for the Elysée Palace, was also meeting business and religious leaders during the two-day visit to the Middle Eastern nation. "We discussed the long and fruitful friendship between our two countries," the National Front (FN) leader said after meeting Aoun at the presidential palace in the hilltop suburb of Baabda. She said they also discussed the refugee crisis in Lebanon, where more than one million war-weary Syrians have fled in recent years. "We raised... the concerns we share over the very serious refugee crisis," she said. "These difficulties are being overcome by the courage and generosity of Lebanon but this cannot go on forever." Opinion polls show that Le Pen is on pace to win the first round of France's presidential election on April 23, but that she will be beaten in the run-off ballot on May 7.

Word of caution

The leader of the anti-immigration FN party also met Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, who cautioned against associating his religion with jihadists who have repeatedly targeted France. "The worst mistake would be the amalgam between Islam and Muslims on one hand and terrorism on the other hand," Hariri said, in a statement issued by his office. "The Lebanese and Arabs, like the majority of the world, consider France to be the homeland of human rights and of the republican state that makes no ethnic, religious or class distinction between its citizens," he said. On Tuesday, Le Pen is to meet Lebanon's grand mufti, the leader of its Sunni community, the Maronite Christian patriarch and rightist Christian party leader Samir Geagea.

Closed doors

France had mandate power over both Lebanon and Syria during the first half of the 20th century, and Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine’s father - cultivated ties with Lebanese Christians for many years as head of the FN.

Rival presidential hopeful and former French economy minister Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut in January, where he also met both Aoun and Hariri.

Le Pen has met few top foreign officials since taking control of the FN in 2011. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused to meet with her.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told AFP last week that "a victory of the populists would be the end of Europe", a clear reference to Le Pen's call for a referendum on France's EU membership.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)