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French President Emmanuel Macron and Saad al-Hariri, who announced his resignation as Lebanon's prime minister while on a visit to Saudi Arabia, are pictured at the Elysee Palace in Paris

Lebanese prime minister visits France, says he will return home

Two weeks after leaving for Saudi Arabia and resigning, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in France on Saturday, announcing he will return home, though failing to quash speculation that he’s under control by the Saudi government.

Hariri, who has Lebanese and Saudi citizenship, has not explained his departure to Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh earlier this month, which surprised even his closest advisors and stunned all divided factions of politics or religious leanings, plunging the country into turmoil. But he left Saudi Arabia with his wife to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday after a call between Macron and Lebanese President Michel Aoun. He also announced he will return to Lebanon next week ahead of Independence Day celebrations, according to the Associated Press.

“As you know I have resigned and we will speak about this matter there [Lebanon],” Hariri told reporters in Paris Saturday, after meeting with Macron and his family for lunch. “It’s there that I will make my position known on all subjects after meeting with the president.”

He also thanked France, Lebanon’s former colonial ruler, for the “positive political role” it is playing in the Middle East.

Hariri left Lebanon just after Saudi officials had warned its citizens there for the second time in two weeks to leave the country “as soon as possible,” according to the AP.

People in Lebanon feared the announcements were in anticipation of Saudi Arabia preparing to isolate and take punitive action against Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party that is Iran’s ally in Lebanon and also part of national unity government that Hariri formed last year.

Then on Nov. 4, Hariri, on a Saudi-controlled channel, announced that he was resigning, citing Iran and Hezbollah for meddling in Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia. He also accused Hezbollah of destabilizing his nation and said that he feared for his life, according to the BBC.

He remained in Riyadh except for a brief trip to United Arab Emirates on Nov. 7.

President Aoun said he would only accept the resignation in person, accusing the Saudis of holding Hariri captive, which both Hariri and Saudi officials deny.

But the announcement unsettled the region, raising fears that Saudi officials were using Hariri to pull Lebanon into a decades-long struggle for regional influence between Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Muslim power, and Iran, which is largely Shia.

Rumors that Hariri was being held captive escalated, especially after a bizarre interview on Nov. 12 on Future TV, a channel associated with his political party. He was combative with the interviewer who asked him why he was in Saudi Arabia, started tearing up while talking about his love for Lebanon, and then the interviewer abruptly cut for a commercial break.

And leaving his two children on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, who are attending school there, fueled people questioning his honesty.

But Michael Young, a longtime Hezbollah opponent who edits Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The New York Times he does not believe Hariri was held hostage. Instead, Young said the last two weeks have substantiated the notion that he has power because “he is the Saudis’ guy.”

“His margin of maneuver against the Saudis is very limited indeed,” Young said. “He’s a de facto hostage all the time.”

France has been eager to mediate, but Macron has clarified that the country is only offering to host him for a few days and will not support a life in exile.

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