Selfie diplomacy, trade and election politics

French president Emmanuel Macron gets up in a boat during a visit to Bangladesh. He takes a boat ride in the Turag river. The picture was taken from Borobazar Eco Park dock area in Mirpur on 11 September, 2023

In the diplomatic context, last week was probably the most eventful, eye-catching and discussed week for Bangladesh. After many decades, Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, almost isolated for its aggression against Ukraine, set foot in Bangladesh. Next Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went to Delhi upon invitation from India to join the G-20 summit of industrially developed and rising economies, where she held bilateral talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and also held meetings with a few other heads of government and state. But it was the selfie with US President Joe Biden that overshadowed everything else as well as the special cordiality displayed by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

While there had been speculations and curiosity concerning the bilateral talks with India, this did not become the centre of discussions. And then France’s President Emmanuel Macron paid a whirlwind visit to Bangladesh and his ways to win over the Bangladeshis’ hearts still linger on. The government, undoubtedly, has been quite elated over the last few days. But there is no guarantee how long this elation with last.

At a juncture when the US is putting pressure on Bangladesh to pay attention to democracy and human rights and also to ensure a free and fair election, which many in the government have termed as a conspiracy to topple them from power, then such diplomatic interactions and exchanges undeniably have significance.

However, the deliberation on Shomoy TV by Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen concerning the prime minister’s selfie with Joe Biden and their exchange, has posed new questions concerning the ruling party’s politics. During a break in the summit, rather than a general exchange of pleasantries or an exchange on the summit-related issues, as a citizen of the country, it does not feel good to hear how an effort was made to explain to the US president about what good things the government was doing for the country. Doesn’t that imply that we are seeking approval or endorsement from someone outside?

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The extent of public relations President Macron carried out to win people’s hearts in Dhaka was quite startling. Back home his popularity has plummeted to 31 per cent because of his pension system reforms where the age of retirement has been extended, so perhaps such public relations would have served him better in Paris. But then again, there would be the risk of facing public agitation there. Not too long ago he had fallen into such an untoward situation.

There were some French diplomats and even some journalists over there who had apprehended that the Islamists in Bangladesh would stage a demonstration because of France’s strict laws banning hijab for women, along with a fine. They were worried because a few years ago there had been demonstrations in Dhaka and calls to boycott French products in response to a cartoon published in the magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’. And there was of course the perceptions of Islamic militant threats. It is hard to tell how far their perceptions will change after the smooth trip.

It was clear from the joint statement of the two countries and from his statement that during President Macron’s visit, France’s trade interests were at the fore. The joint statement began with a mention of the depth of friendship between the two countries and highlighted shared democratic values, human rights, preserving peace and sustainable development. But nowhere in the entire statement was there any observation on deviation from democracy or any joint commitment to protect human rights.

There was mention of quite a few measures for cooperation in tackling climate change, but there was no acknowledgement that these initiatives could not be successful without the democratic inclusion of the people. Surprisingly, while environmentalists all over the world are expressing their grave concern over the mangrove forest Sundarbans facing the threat of being endangered, France praises how the mangrove is being supposedly being protected.

There was no commitment for any big investment in Bangladesh, though there was mention of an investment summit between the two countries next month in Toulouse. Bangladesh’s achievement has been an agreement for USD 200 million funds for a climate change adaptation related healthcare and clean energy project. On the flip side, an MoU was signed for Bangladesh to purchase 10 Airbus aircraft at a cost of over USD 3 billion. The UK has a role here too because they had already signed an MoU to provide loans for the required funds. And the Airbus’ Rolls Royce engine is made in UK. The business that France is getting solely is the manufacture and supply of a second satellite to Bangladesh.

Many analysts are taken aback by France nabbing business entailing such huge figures. With hardly four months or so left for the election, it is not normal for a developing country to sign such a massive deal entailing huge financial liabilities. If the continuity of the government is not ensured in the election, there is the risk of this contract being cancelled or of fresh negotiations, so there seems to be a different significance attached to this agreement.

Emmanuel Macron referred to French support against the British during the Battle of Plassey. Business interests had been behind that support too. Back then, Bengal did not benefit from that support and neither did France

Given the prevailing economic predicament of Bangladesh, the matter of purchasing aircraft for an organsiation that is historically plunged in losses, has not even been settled within the country. A report appearing on 12 September in the Daily Star states that Biman still hasn’t been able to complete a financial and strategic feasibility study on adding aircrafts to its existing fleet. Vietnam is purchasing 50 Boeing aircraft from the US at a cost of USD 15.6 million each, while we are purchasing Airbus for USD 32 million each. It is only natural that questions will arise regarding this deal.

Then there is the question of the satellite. The price of the first satellite was excessive and the revenue from it is paltry. So it is also only natural for questions to arise regarding the justification of a new satellite.

There is also talk of procuring military hardware. Sources claim that the mention of defence cooperation in the joint statement is linked to the matter of procuring Rafale jet fighters.

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Before President Macron came to visit Bangladesh, the human rights organisations had written an open letter to him regarding their concern about human rights and called upon him to discuss the issue. We do not know if such matters were discussed behind closed doors, but there was nothing to this end in the statement.

Jasmin Lorch, researcher of GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, told Deutsche Welle that Emmanuel Macron was prioitising business over human rights. In context of the competition between the US and China to exert their geopolitical influence, she says Macron is offering the Bangladesh government a 'third way' and is promising to deepen political and economic ties between Bangladesh and France. It's a gift for the Hasina government, which can use Macron's visit to convey the message that it still has partners in the West despite US pressure and sanctions. Her words cannot be dismissed, weighing the pros and cons of the trip.

Speaking at the dinner hosted in his honour, Emmanuel Macron referred to French support against the British during the Battle of Plassey. Business interests had been behind that support too. Back then, Bengal did not benefit from that support and neither did France.

Prior to President Macron, the French President Mitterrand had visited Bangladesh in February 1990. But that visit hardly made any difference to relations between the two countries. And Ershad, who was facing legitimacy crisis at the time, made no political gains from the visit either.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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