Why is the French President visiting Bangladesh?

French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Dhaka on September 10, following his attendance at the G20 summit in New Delhi. This visit will be the first by a French President to Bangladesh in the last three decades, with the previous visit by former President Mitterrand occurring from February 22 to 24, 1990.

On September 5, 2023, the French Embassy announced that the President of the French Republic will continue to implement France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. This visit presents an opportunity to strengthen the bilateral relationship with a nation undergoing rapid economic development, with France’s support, and seeking to diversify its international partnerships.

Bangladesh and France share common perspectives on global challenges, notably with regard to the Paris Agenda for People and the Planet, which Bangladesh actively endorses. Given Bangladesh’s heightened vulnerability to the impacts of climate disruption, President Macron will reaffirm France’s commitment to supporting the country, particularly in light of its recurrent flooding issues. Additionally, Bangladesh plays a significant role in international solidarity efforts, both through its participation in peacekeeping operations and in providing shelter to Rohingya refugees.

French embassy also twitted regarding their investment in Bangladesh, mentioning “The fight against #climatechange is one of our priorities. In BD, this interest goes through the action of, @AFD_France which has almost tripled its annual commitments over the last 5 years. The upcoming visit of  @EmmanuelMacron will bring a new dynamic into this commitment.” The tweet from the French Embassy clearly highlights their commitment to addressing climate change as a top priority in their bilateral relationship with Bangladesh, emphasizing the role of AFD and hinting at increased collaboration and investment in this critical area during President Macron’s upcoming visit.

In the context of the Russia-Ukraine war and the upcoming national election in Bangladesh, diplomatic analysts deem the visits of politicians from two pivotal countries as significant.

France is presently directing its focus toward enhancing relations with nations in the Indo-Pacific region, with Bangladesh holding a pivotal position in this geographical context. In recent years, France-Bangladesh relations have experienced a substantial upswing, characterized by a notable increase in bilateral trade, which currently stands at over three billion Euros. In June 2023, French envoy invited Bangladeshi companies to invest there.

In early July of this year, a French Navy vessel conducted a goodwill visit to Chattogram and participated in a joint exercise alongside the Bangladesh Navy. This visit was accompanied by a statement from the French Ambassador to Bangladesh, Marie Masdupuy, who emphasized that the ship’s presence underscores France’s political dedication to backing Bangladesh. It also acknowledges Bangladesh’s strategic significance within the broader Indian Ocean region.

France Needs New Allies

France is in need of forging robust ties with Bangladesh as it seeks to establish new alliances, particularly in light of its diminishing influence in African countries that were formerly its colonies or allies. Following the situation in Niger in July 2023, Gabon experienced a similar crisis, with President Ali Bongo being detained in the very presidential palace that French President Emmanuel Macron had visited just six months prior. This marks the eighth military coup in a former French colony within the past three years.

The series of coups has been propelled by the escalating anti-French sentiment, a sentiment that Russia has eagerly seized upon and leveraged for its own strategic interests. Resentment towards colonial rule has become increasingly evident as the East-West geopolitical rivalry has exacerbated preexisting tensions. Many countries are finding themselves compelled to align with one side or the other. For most African nations, the decision is relatively straightforward. Notably, Russia stands out as one of the few countries that never established colonies in Africa. Furthermore, Russia actively supported various independence movements during the Cold War era, which has contributed to the formation of present-day governments in many African countries.

In April, when French president visited four African countries, he was greeted by protests outside the local French embassy denouncing French colonialism, and he even got roasted on live TV by Felix Tshisekedi, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a result, the upcoming participation of the French President in the G-20 summit is expected to be pivotal, as it will provide an opportunity to strengthen relationships with both India and Bangladesh. This endeavor will entail increased investment aimed at nurturing these enhanced ties. Beyond the realms of economic cooperation, considerations of climate change and security, France is committed to reinforcing its relationship with Bangladesh. This commitment is grounded in the broader context of the Indo-Pacific region’s ascendancy as a central focus in global geopolitics. Given France’s pivotal role in the Indian Ocean, there is a concerted effort to enhance its presence and influence in this strategically vital area. Bangladesh’s geographic location along the Bay of Bengal further emphasizes its significance as a key partner in advancing France’s strategic objectives within the Indo-Pacific.

Upcoming Election of Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s upcoming election stands as an issue of paramount significance in the current context. The anticipated election date is set for January 2024. Approximately three months before this pivotal event, the French President, a key ally of the United States, is scheduled to visit Bangladesh. Consequently, discussions revolving around the principles of a free, fair, and credible election are expected to take place. It worthy to mention that, the opposition parties in Bangladesh have been demanding for PM’s resignation, new interim government for conducting free and fair election.

Notably, the relationship between Bangladesh and the United States has strained in recent times, primarily due to concerns surrounding the electoral process. The United States has taken measures such as imposing sanctions on individuals involved in human rights abuses, which notably include the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a specialized security force unit in Bangladesh. The imposition of sanctions has been viewed as a mechanism to hold accountable those responsible for such abuses within Bangladesh. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Bangladesh’s foreign policy orientation has exhibited a discernible tilt toward the China-Russia alliance. This inclination is reflected in the country’s pursuit of closer ties with these nations, even though initial discussions regarding Bangladesh’s potential membership in BRICS did not come to fruition.

Furthermore, there have been allegations that Dr. Mohammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate from Bangladesh, is facing harassment by the current ruling party government. The United Nations human rights body has voiced its concerns regarding the ongoing harassment and detention of human rights defenders in Bangladesh. This includes prominent figures such as Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus and leaders of the well-known human rights organization Odhikar. In August 2023, an open letter signed by over 170 global leaders, including more than 100 Nobel laureates, was addressed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The letter demanded an immediate halt to the ongoing judicial proceedings.

The fact remains that, Dr. Yunus maintains a robust connection with France. In 2011, when he was removed from his position at the Grameen Bank, France expressed profound concern. President Sarkozy publicly conveyed his unwavering support for Professor Yunus in a letter disseminated to the French press by Friends of Grameen, a voluntary organization established to promote the microcredit initiatives of the bank and its affiliated institutions. The President articulated that the establishment of the Grameen Bank represented “an audacious initiative” and continued to serve as an enduring source of inspiration for the global community.

Moreover, President Sarkozy acknowledged the challenges Dr. Yunus was confronting at that particular juncture and expressed his confidence that the institutions within Bangladesh would ultimately reach a just resolution. He affirmed the commitment of the French government to closely monitor the situation and to engage with Bangladeshi authorities in addressing this matter in the ensuing days.

Hence, it is evident that discussions regarding the Nobel laureate will be a prominent topic of conversation during the upcoming meeting. It can be anticipated that the President will request the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to take concrete steps toward achieving a just resolution to the challenges faced by Dr. Yunus.

Therefore, the French President’s visit to Bangladesh holds strategic importance in strengthening Indo-Pacific ties, addressing global issues like climate change and security, and navigating evolving geopolitical dynamics. The visit will also address concerns over Bangladesh’s upcoming election and Nobel laureate Dr. Mohammad Yunus’ alleged harassment. The visit’s outcome will shape bilateral relations and regional dynamics.

Md. Obaidullah
Md. Obaidullah
Md. Obaidullah is a Lecturer in Bangladesh Studies within the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Daffodil International University in Dhaka. His research interests include migration, Asian politics, public policy, and international relations. For inquiries, he can be contacted via email at buobaidullah[at]gmail.com.