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Did the French President Troll the Saudi Crown Prince With an Image of Freedom?

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Image from French President Macron's Twitter feed showing Macron and Mohammed bin Salman in front of "Liberty Leading the People"
Image from French President Macron's Twitter feed showing Macron and Mohammed bin Salman in front of "Liberty Leading the People," April 9, 2018Credit: Screen shot

Saudi Arabia and France signed 20 economic deals worth more than $18 billion, Al Arabiya TV said on Tuesday as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Paris, without specifying whether they were full contracts or memorandums of understanding.

State oil giant Saudi Aramco earlier announced deals with major French companies including Total, Technip and Suez.

France is tapping into the business of culture to develop agreements with Saudi Arabia and profit from the heir to the throne’s goal of modernizing the conservative kingdom, which will be represented at the Cannes Film Festival for the first time next month.

Saudi Arabia and France signed the series of accords Monday, following a private dinner French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the night before for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Louvre museum.

At the Louvre Macron took Prince Mohammed to a new exhibition by the revolutionary 19th-century French painter Eugene Delacroix. Delacroix was "known notably for the famous painting of Liberty (a bare-breasted woman) Leading The People."

The image is very politically charged as it was inspired by the July Revolution of 1830 that saw protesters overthrow the inept ruling French royal, Charles X.

"It's an allegorical and revolutionary painting that promotes the republic," Francois Gere, a historian who is head of the French Institute for Strategic Analysis, told AFP.

After midnight on Monday Saad Hariri, the president of Lebanon, posted a selfie on Twitter with Prince Mohammed and the King of Morroco with the three boasting huge grins.

The cooperation accords cover cultural and artistic exchanges that include training for Saudi filmmakers and plans for the National Opera of Paris to help the Saudis create a national orchestra, the French Culture Ministry said.

France also hopes to work with Saudi Arabia in areas such as technology, renewable energy, health and tourism, an official with Macron’s office said.

No major defense contracts are to be signed during Prince Mohammed’s first official visit to France despite France’s historic role as an arms supplier.

However, fighting terrorism and terror financing were likely discussed during a meeting Monday with French Defense Minister Florence Parly. Saudi ministers are to be present at an April 26 conference on fighting terrorism financing to be hosted by France, Macron’s office said.

It was unclear whether Macron would broach human rights issues, as groups decrying the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen to fight Iran-backed Houthi rebels urged the French president to do.

Ten human rights organizations have asked Macron to demand that Saudi Arabia end the airstrikes and lift a blockade aggravating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

The 32-year-old crown prince has worked at breakneck speed to remake the austere image of Saudi Arabia through moves such as giving women the right to drive and plans to open movie theaters.

During his trip to France, he has been elusive, breaking the protocol of official visits with agendas usually announced in advance.

One of the few items penciled in on the agenda — a visit to Europe’s biggest startup incubator, Station F, with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe — was scratched hours before it was to take place.

Instead, the prime minister talked with the crown prince at his offices, joined by France’s foreign minister, French intellectuals and others.

The visit to France contrasts with Mohammed’s three-week tour of the United States that concluded with more than $2.3 billion in promised arms sales and $1.3 billion in artillery. He visited Britain ahead of going to the U.S.

In a major sign of Saudi Arabia’s plan to rebrand itself, the kingdom will be present for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival May 8-19.

The General Culture Authority quoted Saudi Culture Minister Awwad Alawwad saying the kingdom wants to utilize its “rich tradition of storytelling” to develop a film industry and provide locations for foreign filmmakers.

The crown prince’s visit ends Tuesday with a formal dinner with Macron, preceded by talks and a joint declaration.

Reuters contributed to this report

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