France’s far-right leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on Monday met for the first time with a foreign head of state, holding talks in Beirut with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun.
“We discussed the long and fruitful friendship between our two countries,” the National Front (FN) leader said after her 30-minute encounter at the presidential palace in Baabda with Aoun, the Middle East’s only Christian president.
She said they also discussed the refugee crisis in Lebanon, where more than one million Syrians have fled from conflict.
“Discussions with President Aoun focused on the issue of refugees which constitutes a burden on Lebanon,” Le Pen said.
She also stressed the “importance of cooperation between Lebanon and France to combat Islamic extremism.”
The FN leader, whose party takes an anti-immigrant stance, called Sunday for the international community to step up humanitarian aid to keep the refugees in Lebanon.
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.
Upon her arrival in Lebanon, media reports quoted Le Pen as saying: “This is my first visit to Lebanon …Our relations need to be strengthened significantly.”
Rival presidential hopeful and former economy minister Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut on January 24, where he met both Aoun and Hariri.
Le Pen is a leading candidate in the polls. She is running on an anti-immigrant and anti-European Union platform that critics say is a cover for islamophobia and xenophobia.
Her arrival Sunday precedes two days of meetings with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
Lebanon is a former French protectorate. Its Christians have long looked to France for security against the Middle East’s turmoil.