French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday he would not condition the sale of weapons to Egypt on human rights because he did not want to weaken Cairo's ability to counter-terrorism in the region, a comment likely to draw the ire of critics.
Both states – which share concerns about instability across the Sahel, threats from jihadist groups in Egypt and the political vacuum in Libya – have cultivated closer economic and military ties during President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi's rise to power.
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But 17 French and international human rights groups issued a statement ahead of a visit by Sissi to France, accusing Macron of turning a blind eye to what they say are increasing violations of freedoms by Sissi's government.
"I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements (over human rights)," Macron said during a joint press conference with Sissi after the two leaders held talks in the Elysee Palace.
"It is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one our partners in the fight against terrorism," he added.
French officials have dismissed criticism, saying the government had a policy of avoiding public declarations about other countries' rights records and instead raises concerns in private.
Drums rolled and trumpets blared as the French Republican Guard cavalry earlier escorted Sissi through the centre of the capital and across the Seine over the Pont des Invalides. A masked Macron welcomed him at the Elysee Palace.
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Nevertheless, even within French officialdom there are doubts about the close embrace of Sissi, who has presided while thousands of opponents have been jailed.
"I don't know what we gain from this visit. It's business as usual," said one French diplomat, deploring Macron's position.
Between 2013 and 2017, France was the main weapons supplier to Egypt. Those contracts have dried up, including deals for more Rafale fighter jets and warships that had been at an advanced stage. Diplomats say that is as much to do with financing issues as with France's response to human rights concerns.
Sissi dismissed the accusations of human rights abuses.
"It is not appropriate for you to present the Egyptian state and everything it does for its people and for the stability of the region, as an oppressive regime," Sissi said.
"We do not have anything to be afraid of or embarrassed about it, we are a nation that is striving to build a future for its people in extremely harsh conditions in a region of great turmoil."
Macron said the release of members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) was an opening and that he gave Sissi a list of individuals who should be released.
"Emmanuel Macron is effectively giving a blank check to the ruthless repression carried out by Sissi against civil society and is turning his back on his own commitments," said Benedicte Jeannerod, France Director at Human Rights Watch, in response to Macron's comments.