PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged on Monday disagreements with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi over human rights, but said it would not prevent France from reaching economic and defence deals with the North African country, which has seen the heaviest crackdown on dissent in its modern history.
In an unusual exchange following their high-level meeting in Paris, both heads of state also expressed opposing views in a firm but polite, almost philosophical discussion about the role of religious values in society.
Macron welcomed el Sisi at the Elysee Palace at the start of the Egyptian president’s two-day state visit to France. They discussed human right issues in addition to talks on fighting terrorism, the conflict in Libya and other regional issues.
In a joint news conference, Macron said “we have disagreements on that topic (human rights) and we talk about it very frankly”.
Macron called for a greater inclusiveness of civil society in political decision-making process in Egypt, saying it is a better way to fight extremism than political repression.
El Sisi has overseen the toughest crackdown on critics in Egypt in living memory, jailing thousands of Islamists along with pro-democracy activists, reversing freedoms won in the 2011 Arab uprising, silencing critics and placing draconian rules on rights groups.
On Monday, an Egyptian court extended the detention of an activist and researcher who previously worked for one of the country’s most prominent rights groups.
Yet Macron ruled out making France’s cooperation with Egypt on economy and defence conditional on human rights issues, because Egypt is France’s key partner in the fight against extremism and for the stability of the region.
El-Sisi’s state visit was maintained amid the coronavirus pandemic as both countries seek to strengthen their strategic partnership, with a focus on joint efforts to curb insecurity in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. France also assured Egypt of its support in the health care sector.
Over 20 human rights groups denounced in a joint statement France’s strategic partnership with Egypt as the North African country is abusively using counter-terrorist legislation to eradicate the legitimate work in favour of human rights and suppress all peaceful dissent in the country.
They called for a demonstration on Tuesday near the National Assembly in Paris.
With a straightforward tone rarely heard in public, el Sisi and Macron expressed opposing views in a spirited exchange on what should prevail between religious and human values while both strongly condemning any extremist attack.
In reference to the publication in France of blasphemous caricatures, the Egyptian leader said it was very important that when “we’re expressing our opinion, that we don’t, for the sake of human values, violate religious values”. “The rank of religious values is much higher than human values ... they are holy and above all other values,” he added.
Macron responded: “We consider human values are superior to everything else. That’s what was brought by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the foundation of the universalism of human rights.”
Under France’s secularism, blasphemy is allowed, Macron stressed.
“When there’s a caricature ... this is not a message from France toward your religion and the Muslim world, this is the free expression of someone who is, indeed, provoking, blaspheming. It is allowed in my country,” he said.
Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2020