Macron says he raised Egypt's rights record with Sisi
French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday rejected criticism of his close ties with visiting Egyptian strongman Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, saying that to take a tougher line on respect for human rights would be "counterproductive".
Macron hosted Sisi, whom he referred to as his "friend" for talks on the second day of the Egyptian's three-day state visit to France.
Ahead of their discussions Amnesty International and other rights groups accused France of having "long indulged President al-Sisi's brutal repression of any form of dissent" and said it was "now or never" for Macron to stand up for human rights.
But the French leader refrained from direct criticism of former army general Sisi, who has cracked down on supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, as well as on leftists and liberals.
Macron told a joint press conference with Sisi that he had brought up the issue of human rights during their discussions and said he remained "a constant advocate of democratic and social openness". But he ruled out conditioning France's deepening defence and trade ties with Egypt on the issue of rights.
"I think it is more effective to have a policy of dialogue than a policy of boycott which would reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism and for regional stability," he said. To force the issue of human rights would be both "ineffective on the subject of human rights and counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, that's why I won't do it," he added.
France views Egypt as a key ally in the fight against terrorism and an important client for its warships and fighter jets.
Macron and Sisi also share suspicion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who led calls for anti-French protests and boycotts in October over Macron's defence of the right to publish cartoons mocking Islam's prophet Muhammad.
Macron spoke about the cartoons during a tribute to schoolteacher Samuel Paty who was beheaded by an Islamist extremist in October for showing his pupils Muhammad caricatures in a class on free speech.
"France has just been the victim of a campaign of hate and boycott, driven by ignorance and extremism," the French president said on Monday, thanking Sisi as "the president of a great Arab and Muslim country" for "honouring us with a visit".
But in a sign of the deep divide between France and many Muslim countries on the issue of satirising Islam, Sisi made clear he too did not share Macron's views.
Reacting to remarks by Macron, who again defended free speech as a paramount French value, Sisi said: "Human values are man-made and can be always changed but religious values ... are sacred above everything."
"If expressing yourself hurts the feelings of hundreds of millions and you find that it can't be revised...it needs more thought and soul searching," he said.
Concern over Sisi's trip to Paris was amplified when three Egyptian activists were arrested last month following a meeting with foreign ambassadors.
Following an international campaign backed by celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, all three campaigners from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were freed. Macron hailed their release as a sign of increased openness by Egypt.
The French leader had already been criticised by rights groups after saying in October 2017 during a visit by Sisi to Paris that he would not "lecture" Egypt on liberties. Among the others jailed in Egypt are Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French national Celine Lebrun, who has been held since July 2019 on accusations of acting against the state.
Macron said he had brought up Shaath's case during his talks with Sisi.
Both Macron and Sisi are wary of the regional ambitions of Turkey under Erdogan. Ankara has intervened militarily in the conflicts in Libya and Syria and sought to bolster the Turkish footprint in Africa.
The Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Morsi was a close ally of Erdogan and the Turkish president has repeatedly expressed dismay over his ousting.
Tensions between Ankara and Paris grew further in the run-up to the visit, with Erdogan saying that France should "get rid of" Macron "as soon as possible". (AFP)