The diplomatic bloc in Dhaka has a busy schedule for the first half of September, planned with high-profile foreign leader visits, PM Sheikh Hasina’s departure for the G-20 summits in New Delhi, as well as other bilateral meetings and agreements that need to be attended. On September 10, Dhaka is getting ready to greet French President Emmanuel Macron after the Prime Minister returns from the G-20 summit on September 10. He will visit at the invitation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the visit holds significant promise for both nations as it signifies a deepening of bilateral relations. His visit to Bangladesh is a resounding example of France’s commitment to extend its ties within the region and engage constructively with counterparts in Dhaka.
After former French President Mitterrand’s visit to Bangladesh from February 22–24, 1990, this will be the first visit to Bangladesh by a French president in the last three decades. Both governments sincerely hope that the visit will take their already warm relations to a new level as it promises to give them a chance to deepen their mutual understanding and discuss pressing issues like the Rohingya crisis, climate change, and Bangladesh’s post-LDC prospects. According to diplomatic observers, the visit is also of highest importance, in light of the emerging global complexities of the Russia-Ukraine war and the upcoming national election in Bangladesh.
Brief history of bilateral relations
The Bangladesh-France bilateral relations have followed a trajectory of gradual development and expanding cooperation. The engagement dates back to the 17th century, when France started maintaining a trading mission here. It is also one of the first Western nations to recognize Bangladesh, on February 14, 1972. In the post-independence era, the relation has evolved significantly over the years and both the countries now hold strategic posture towards the free and open Indo-Pacific region and are embarking towards an expanding political, economic and diplomatic relations. It is Bangladesh’s one of the major export destinations, where it mostly exports readymade garment items. According to the Bangladesh’s Export Promotion Bureau’s statistics the total value of Bangladesh’s export was $3.29 billion between July 2022 and June 2023.
On the contrary, the UN’s COMTRADE database on global trade shows that France’s exports to Bangladesh in 2022 totaled $254.32 million, making it one of the most export surplus countries for Bangladesh. The bilateral relationship in recent years has also been vibrant Since Bangladesh’s first satellite, “Bangabandhu Satellite-1,” was produced by the French company Thales Alenia Space and the French aerospace giant Airbus has a sizable presence, with national carrier Biman Bangladesh Airlines operating Airbus aircraft. The French multinational energy company Total has expressed interest in investing in Bangladesh’s energy sector, and various cosmetics and utensil brands are very popular among Bangladeshis.
The most recent high-level engagement was in November 2021, when the Bangladesh Prime minister Sheikh Hasina visited the country and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on defense cooperation. The MoU includes provisions of technological exchange and joint training facility for capacity building of the Bangladesh Armed Forces. In an effort to give this relationship a strategic direction, the two parties also placed a strong focus on their bilateral cooperation in commerce, investment, and regular political conversations. Both nations are now committed to enhance their collaboration in a variety of fields, including politics, diplomacy, defense, security, commerce, investment, sustainable development, combating climate change, education, cultural exchange and opt for cooperation in regional and international forums.
Macron’s Visit to Dhaka
During her visit to France in November 2021, Prime minister Sheikh Hasina invited the French President Emmanuel Macron and the 11th September visit is in reciprocation of that invitation. The French president will be accompanied by his Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna. During his visit President Macron will pay homage to Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum at Dhanmondi 32. According to the sources of foreign ministry, the French president will hold a summit meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Prime Minister’s Office and the two leaders are expected to witness signing a couple of bilateral instruments and hold a joint press briefing. There is also anticipation of Bangladesh securing French defense technology that includes twin-jet fighter aircraft, Rafale, unmanned combat air vehicles, other military hardware and installing radar at airports in different cities, in accordance with the 2021 MoU on defense cooperation. Moreover, there is also anticipation to sign a deal for setting a framework on defense cooperation including providing defense articles that were agreed in 2021.
A New Dynamism in Bilateral Cooperation
France-Bangladesh relations have witnessed a significant boost over the last several years; the bilateral diplomatic relationship celebrated its golden jubilee in 2022. In the volatile global political context, France is eager to improve its South Asian connectivity in order to advance its regional interests and is actively involved through aiding emerging nations like Bangladesh. With a true desire to grow and expand their relationship, both nations earnestly believe that the visit will take their friendly ties to a new level. While Bangladesh wants to improve collaboration in all areas, including politics, diplomacy, defense and security, trade and investment, sustainable development, combating climate change, education, and cultural exchange, France views the visit as a chance to strengthen bilateral ties in a geo-graphically strategic location. Moreover, both the countries are also in compliance with various fundamental beliefs, such as, they recognize the importance of sustained and substantive cooperation in relevant regional and multilateral fora, developing defense and security components in bilateral relations and rule based free and fair indo-pacific region. In this regard, the French president’s visit to Bangladesh after more than three decades usher’s new hope and dynamism in bilateral cooperation.
On the other hand, Bangladesh is at a critical juncture of its development journey where it is undergoing rapid economic development, and is seeking to diversify its outreach and partnerships. New French cooperation opportunity provides the country just the required platform to excel. Bangladesh has emerged as a major contributor to international solidarity efforts through its participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations and hosting millions of Rohingya refugees. Both the countries are also at great convergence in the face of global challenges, particularly in light of supporting the Framework of the “Paris Agenda for Peoples and the Planet”. Since Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to climate change and France is leader on the humanitarian front, Macron’s visit gives Bangladesh all the excitement to engage itself on climate diplomacy and present its plea in front of the world to bring sustained solutions.
Apart from all these, the visit is also being scrutinized in the lens of Bangladesh’s domestic political factors. The current Hasina regime is under scrutiny and excruciating pressure from the US and other EU countries for the upcoming election and Mr. Macron’s visit will provide Hasina government an opportunity to apprise a western leader, who himself is not in good terms with the US, recently remarking that one need no enemy if he has a friend like the US. Many analyst claims, successful persuasion could possibly win over a western leader and fend off much pressure.
The French president is now focusing on enhancing ties with nations in the Indo-Pacific, and Bangladesh is a crucial nation in the area. This reciprocal visit is in part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and the French president is traveling to various countries to further its interests in the region. Macron’s visit demonstrates France’s political commitment to assisting Bangladesh and acknowledges the significance of the nation’s geo-strategic location in the Indian Ocean region. Although the visit is being explored in different lenses because of Bangladesh’s current political reality, it undoubtedly promises to unlock many opportunities for bilateral relations and inject fresh life into bilateral cooperation.
– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).