Macron stresses security, not rights, with Egyptian leader Sisi
French President Emmanuel Macron lauded deepening security and diplomatic ties with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Tuesday, adding that he had refused to "give lessons" about human rights during their talks in Paris.
The 39-year-old French centrist had faced calls from rights groups to raise torture and political repression in Egypt publicly after the first face-to-face meeting between the pair.
Instead, Macron stressed how Egypt was a vital partner in the fight against Islamic extremism in the Middle East and Europe, as well as key in the search for lasting political solutions in war-wracked Libya and Syria.
"The first battle that we have in common is the fight against terrorism," Macron said during a joint press conference which underlined their common purpose against extremists which have claimed hundreds of victims in both countries.
Macron said he had stated that combating extremism "should be carried out with the respect of the rule of law and human rights," but declined to criticise Sisi's record since he seized power in 2013.
As French president "I would not accept that another leader gave me lessons about how to govern my country... I believe in the sovereignty of states and we am not here to give lessons without taking account of the context," Macron explained.
The former investment banker, elected in May, has promised a pragmatic, results-oriented foreign policy, but also one that sees France uphold its historic mission of defending human rights.
His approach is in line with other European leaders who see Sisi as a source of stability, but Macron did not go as far as US President Donald Trump who praised the Egyptian for doing a "fantastic job" in April.
Egyptian security services are accused of using torture systematically by human rights groups, while government pressure on the media, NGOs and political opponents is seen as having increased under Sisi.
The most populous country in the Middle East is fighting the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group in the north of the Sinai peninsula and has faced a series of attacks that has affected its vital tourism industry.
At least 16 Egyptian police officers were killed at the weekend in an ambush by Islamist fighters in the country's Western Desert in a rare flare-up outside the Sinai.
Asked by a French reporter about allegations that an Italian academic researcher found murdered in Egypt in 2016 died after being tortured by the police, Sisi defended his security services.
"We do not practise torture," he said, adding: "The Egyptian people refuses all violent practises or dictatorship and failures to respect human rights."
He also said that journalists and unnamed groups, which he accused of trying to undermine the country, were wrongly fixated on "political rights" in his country of nearly 100 million people.
"What do you say about the rights of victims (of terrorism) and their families?" he asked. "What were the rights of people who worked in the tourism sector which has been affected by terrorism?"
Sisi ousted the country's first civilian president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, and insists that his priority is to restore law and order and provide jobs to ordinary Egyptians.
Stubborn but discreet?
Macron raised the cases of 15 activists or journalists behind bars in Egypt in private and would "wait for some progress", an aide told reporters after the talks, on condition of anonymity.
In the lead up to the visit, Macron's aides had stressed that human rights would be discussed behind closed doors and that France would be "stubborn but discreet."
Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had urged the French leader to be bolder and make economic cooperation and military support conditional on improvements in human rights.
"The silence of foreign governments sends a message to the Egyptian authorities that they can continue," Hussein Baoumi, Egypt expert at Amnesty International, told a press conference in Paris on Monday.
The head of Human Rights Watch in France, Benedicte Jeannerod, urged Macron to end "France's disgraceful policies of indulgence toward al-Sisi's repressive government."
Egypt is a major buyer of French military equipment with orders worth more than 5.0 billion euros ($5.8 billion) since 2015, including for 24 Rafale fighter jets.
Those deals were negotiated by former defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who is now foreign minister in Macron's government.
Le Drian and Sisi are set to have dinner together later Tuesday.