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Dhaka Tribune

French President Macron to arrive Sunday on historic visit

  • Analysts see the visit as French interest in Indo-Pacific region 
  • Bilateral meeting with PM Hasina scheduled
Update : 09 Sep 2023, 10:02 PM

Bangladesh and France are set to embark on a new era of relationship with President Emmanuel Macron’s arrival in Dhaka on Sunday on a two-day visit, the first by any French president since 1990.

Paying respect to Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at Dhanmondi-32 memorial museum, a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the signing of deals related to Biman Bangladesh’s buying of aircraft from Airbus and the launching the country’s first Earth observation satellite, and enjoying folk music are the highlights of his itinerary in Dhaka.

Analysts see his visit, on the heels of his tour of New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea, as signals of French interest in strategic autonomy in the Indo-Pacific region and eagerness to label relations with Bangladesh as “strategic” from “friend”.

He will come at the invitation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who paid an official visit to Paris in November 2021 when the two leaders discussed “upgrading relations” between Paris and Dhaka.

“We always see 21st century politics in the framework of the 20th century in which globally two countries dominate - the US and Russia, with China wanting to emerge as the next superpower, and regionally India and China are in a tussle over Bangladesh. I think the world is multipolar, which we don’t want to see. And many countries are working for their strategic autonomy. France is one of them,” Prof Lailufar Yasmin, chairperson of the Department of International Relations, Dhaka University, told Dhaka Tribune.

“This strategic autonomy concept is different. It’s not just to take policy. It’s to keep my own interest in mind and adopt the policy accordingly,” she said, adding that President Macron’s visit is “a recognition of Bangladesh’s significance in the Indo-Pacific and as a middle power”.

"Our political relations with Bangladesh are a sign of a high degree of confidence and mutual trust in the spirit of Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to Paris [at the end of] 2021," French Ambassador Marie Masdupuy said, at the Bastille day reception on July 13. She asserted that both Dhaka and Paris were eager to maintain “independence in the decision-making process” when it comes to relations with other states and groups of states.

Announcing the President’s visit, the French embassy said: "It will also be an opportunity to deepen our bilateral relations with a country that is experiencing rapid economic growth and seeking to diversify its partnerships."

Macron will continue "the concrete declination of the French strategy in the Indo-Pacific, after welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Paris this summer and visiting Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Sri Lanka."

Bangladesh and France show convergence in the face of global challenges, particularly within the framework of the Paris Agenda for Peoples and the Planet, which Dhaka actively supports.

"Since the country is particularly vulnerable to climate change, the president will recall France's determination to stand by Bangladesh on its humanitarian front, in particular in the face of regular floods.

"Bangladesh is also an important contributor to international solidarity actions, whether through its contingents in peacekeeping operations or in hosting Rohingya refugees," the embassy said about the visit.

This year marks 51 years of diplomatic relations between France and Bangladesh and also the 50th anniversary of André Malraux's visit to Bangladesh, in April 1973. André Malraux, a French novelist, art theorist, and minister of cultural affairs in the government of late President Charles de Gaulle, formed a volunteer group in support of Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971.

Bangabandhu welcomed him during his visit. “If you look at the reasons why Bangladesh has some resonance in France, it’s because of him,” a French diplomat told Dhaka Tribune.

“The President’s visit is not just a one-off kind of occasion. France has long had plans to work on with Bangladesh. The French embassy will be organizing an event to commemorate André Malraux’s historical visit to Dhaka, Chittagong and Rajshahi. And also, there will be a Bangladesh-France trade and investment summit in Paris in October,” said a senior official at the foreign ministry.

During the prime minister’s visit to Paris in 2021, both leaders reiterated their determination to enhance cooperation in all areas, including politics and diplomacy, defence and security, trade and investment, sustainable development and climate change, and education and cultural exchange.

They also stressed development of defence and security cooperation, and committed to step up cooperation in the area of defence equipment “based on the needs expressed and each party’s ability to respond to them, including through capacity building and potential technology transfer.”

“The two leaders can give a concrete shape to the decision related to defence during the summit meeting on Monday,” said the foreign ministry official, who asked not to be named.

France has a direct stake in the Indo-Pacific as it considers itself an Indo-Pacific nation, with La Réunion and the overseas territories in the Western part of the Indian Ocean, as well as New Caledonia and Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean.

In 2018, Paris publicised its own Indo-Pacific strategy that inspired the EU one.

“We are fully dedicated to having our share in the protection of this strategic region, in accordance with our values: rules-based order, and freedom of navigation,” Joint Commander of the French Force, Rear Admiral Emmanuel Slaars, told Dhaka Tribune in an interview, in July when he led Surcouf, a La Fayette type frigate, to Chattogram port.

Aircraft, satellite

Two-way trade between Dhaka and Paris reached an all-time record of €4.9 billion Euro in 2022, boosted by a surge of RMG exports to France.

Total Energies, involved in the LPG sector and Bureau Veritas, with multiple certification facilities across Bangladesh, is the main French investor in Bangladesh.

As of today, 30 French companies have an office in Bangladesh, most of them in the RMG sector, logistics and shipping or engineering.

French companies are involved in flagship projects such as Thales which is engaged in updating the Air Traffic Management in Dhaka international airport, including an additional radar for the third terminal which will be launched soon.

The JV Suez International and OTV-Veolia is building the Gandharbpur water treatment plant to extract 500,000m3 daily in order to supply safe drinking water to 4.3 million people in Dhaka.

Thales Alenia Space commissioned Bangabandhu Satellite-1, the first satellite of Bangladesh, in 2018, which is a communication satellite used mostly by the TV channels.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed her wish to purchase a French-made ‘observation satellite’ under the Bangabandhu-2 programme.

The offer from Airbus Defence and Space is meeting all the criteria and is supported at the highest level by the French government, according to the French embassy.

The two leaders will witness the signing of the letter of intent in this regard.

This will be the first-ever earth observation satellite for Bangladesh, which depends on buying images from different companies’ satellites like Airbus when needed.

“With a permanent thick cloud over the country, a very high specialized technology satellite is needed for Bangladesh for observation. Airbus has this specialized technology. They will not just build the satellite. They are eager to set up a spacecraft production facility here so that our people are trained to manage the satellite and read the images,” said a government official who has knowledge about it.

“We’ll be able to sell images to other countries who don’t have their own satellite. Anything in the world we will be able to see with our new satellite. The whole idea is to build a partnership to take us up to the level of a space nation and be able to develop and maintain observation satellites.”

A communique was signed between the UK and Bangladesh in London on May 5 to lay the ground for a comprehensive civil aviation partnership with Airbus including the acquisition of 10 A350 aircrafts for Biman Bangladesh, built at around 70 percent in France and UK.

The letter of intent will be signed during the President’s visit.

Airbus is a French, British, German and Spanish company. When it comes to these aircrafts and satellites, the biggest part is from the French and the second largest share is by the UK.

With Biman, they will have a 10-year partnership to develop a training academy for pilots along with selling 10 aircrafts including two cargo, and maintainance. As of now, the Biman has no cargo. Under the deal, Biman will be in a position to acquire the first batch of four aircrafts by 2023.

The two leaders will also witness the signing of an agreement between the French AFD and the Bangladesh’s ERD for $200 million concessional loans for developing urban municipalities.

“The French President's visit to Bangladesh is expected to elevate the existing friendly relations between the two countries to new heights,” said the foreign ministry.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will welcome President Macron at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in the evening on September 10, while Foreign Minister Dr. AK Abdul Momen will see him off in the afternoon on September 11. 

It may be recalled that President François Mitterrand visited Bangladesh in February 1990.

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