French President Emmanuel Macron's visit comes as residents of Beirut vented their fury at Lebanon's leaders, blaming them for the deadly explosion that ravaged the capital.
French President Emmanuel Macron has visited shell-shocked Beirut, pledging support and urging change after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has sparked grief and fury.
"Lebanon is not alone," he tweeted upon arrival, before pledging that Paris would coordinate international relief efforts after the colossal blast killed at least 137 people, wounded thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage.
But Macron also warned that Lebanon – already mired in a deep economic crisis, in desperate need of a bailout and hit by political turmoil – would "continue to sink" unless it implements urgent reforms.
Public anger is on the boil over the blast caused by a massive pile ofammonium nitrate that had for years lain in a ramshackle port-side warehouse – proof to many Lebanese of the deep rot at the core of their state system.
Macron visited Beirut's harbourside blast zone, now a wasteland of blackened ruins, rubble and charred debris where a 140-metre-wide crater has filled with sea water.
As Macron inspected a devastated pharmacy, angry crowds outside vented their fury at their "terrorist" leadership, shouting "revolution" and "the people want an end to the regime!"
"Come rule us!" one man yelled at the president.
Macron told them he would urge Lebanon's leaders to accept "a new political deal" and "to change the system, to stop the division of Lebanon, to fight against corruption".
Macron's visit to the small Mediterranean country, France's Middle East protege and former colonial-era protectorate, was the first by a foreign head of state since Tuesday's unprecedented tragedy.
Historical French mandate
In 1923, the League of Nations formally gave the mandate for Lebanon and Syria to France. To ease tensions between the disproportionally represented communities within Lebanon, the constitution of 1926 provided that each should be equitably represented in public offices. Thus, the president would be Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim, creating a fragile governing system.
'Shock to anger'
Two days on, Lebanon was still reeling from a blast so huge it was felt in neighbouring countries, its mushroom-shaped cloud drawing comparisons with the Hiroshima atom bomb.
"Apocalypse", "Armageddon" – Lebanese were lost for words to describe the impact of the blast, which dwarfed anything the country had experienced in its violence-plagued history.
The deadly explosion left dozens more missing and a staggering 5,000 people wounded, many by flying shards of glass as windows imploded.
"We can't bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go," said 30-year-old Mohammad Suyur as he picked up broken glass in Mar Mikhail, one of the worst-hit city districts.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits behind bars, but trust in institutions is low and few on Beirut's streets held out hope for an impartial inquiry.
READ MORE: Who is responsible for the Beirut disaster?
The disaster could reignite a cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted last October and had looked briefly like it could topple what activists consider a hereditary kleptocracy.
The euphoria had faded amid grinding economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic. But since the disaster, social media is once more rife with calls to kick out Lebanon's widely reviled leaders.
"Lebanon's political class should be on guard in the weeks ahead," said Faysal Itani.
"Shock will inevitably turn to anger."
Human Rights Watch supported mounting calls for an international probe into the disaster, saying it was "the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve".
In France, prosecutors have opened a probe into the blast over injuries suffered by 21 French citizens.
Amid the gloom and fury, the aftermath of the terrible explosion has also yielded countless uplifting examples of spontaneous solidarity.
Business owners swiftly took to social media, posting offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.