During his three-day trip to Egypt, Emmanuel Macron bowed to pressure from NGOs on Monday, telling his counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, that Egypt's stability is linked to the treatment of its people.
"The search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights," Macron said during a joint press conference.
Different tune this time
The comments mark a departure from Macron's previous stance, during talks with al-Sisi in 2017, when he insisted it was not his place to lecture the Egyptian leader on civil liberties. France had a duty to respect Egyptian sovereignty, Macron said at the time.
While welcoming Macron's change in tack, Antoine Madelin of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) says more needs to be done to stop the sale of French weapons and technology to oppressive regimes.
French sales of arms
“The repression by the al-Sisi government is being carried out using French surveillance equipment made in France and sold to the dictatorship by French tech companies. The French executive needs to put in place stronger controls over the way these weapons are being sold," says Madelin.
"The FIDH has been asking for the French parliament to play a greater role and to counterbalance the executive’s position to make sure that human rights are at the heart of trade agreements.”
While seen as a key ally in the fight against extremism, al-Sisi has led a crackdown on dissent – with Macron conceding ahead of his trip that freedoms in Egypt are more restricted now than they were when he last held talks with al-Sisi in 2017.
Tweet by Macron January 28th, 2019
For now, no new military contracts are being discussed, apart from a possible deal for 12 new Rafale fighter jets.
Instead, Macron and al-Sisi oversaw the signing of some 30 economic and development deals worth hundreds of millions of euros.
Among them were French support for social policies and women entrepreneurs, and preliminary deal for the expansion of Cairo's metro.
Egypt is important for French foreign policy in the Middle East for its “symbolism”, and because Cairo is influential on many issues that matter to France – issues that go beyond trade and cultural cooperation, says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Egyptian President al-Sisi shakes hands with President Macron after their joint press conference in Cairo on January 28, 2019
AFP / Ludovic Marin
French President Emmanuel Macron is pictured during his visit to the temple of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt on January 27, 2019
AFP / Ludovic Marin
French President Emmanuel Macron (2-R) and his wife Brigitte visit the temple of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt on January 27, 2019.
AFP / Ludovic Marin
“Egypt is a key player in Libya for instance. It’s a massive player in the fight against terrorism. It has strong relations with two of the key players in the Gulf - Saudi Arabia and the UAE - which are key partners for Macron,” Rapnouil says.
France has been looking to establish itself in a leadership role in driving policy in North Africa and the Middle East – and doing business with governments that have a murky record on human rights has opened the country up to criticism.
Critics argue that France is contradicting itself by doing business with Egypt, while at the same time acknowledging the country’s human rights situation is worsening.
“It’s easy to take the moral high ground when you’re not invested and committed to working in the region. When France is criticized for its moral stance or its realpolitik approach, its typical response is: ‘Yes but we actually do have a real policy and we have relations and interests with these countries’,” explains Rapnouil.
“Both sides have a case and it’s important to find the difficult balance between these two … If you are there you need to deal with the governments who are in power, but you don’t want to be trapped with dealing with these governments only on their terms.”
Rapnouil also employs a key word used by Macron throughout Monday’s press conference with al-Sisi: stability. “The stakes for Europeans are not just about how many deals you can sign – on weapons or trade or energy – but also on the stability of the region and the consequences of this stability for Europe, whether it’s through migration flows or terrorism.”
A country’s foreign policy – no matter how developed or farsighted – should not allow it to shirk its legal obligations, says Madelin of the FIDH.
“France has signed international treaties that legally oblige it to ensure it does not export arms or surveillance equipment to a country where it may be used to fuel repressions or human rights violations.”
However, Macron’s words in Cairo on Monday mark a major step forward adds Madelin. “This is a significant evolution, because when Macron last met with al-Sisi he publicly said he had nothing critical to say about al-Sisi’s human rights record”.
And all that lobbying at the Elysée Palace appears to be paying off. "We've worked with Macron’s team to ensure the Foreign Affairs ministry raised the attacks on human rights in the country and the repression of civil society" stresses Madelin. "Macron will be meeting with representatives of civil society on this visit and this is an extremely important gesture.”