French President Emmanuel Macron has just concluded a historic two-day visit to Bangladesh on Sept. 10-11, 2023. In the background briefing to French journalists, the Elysee presidential palace gave an official argument on how Paris was planning to structure its “economic partnership” with Dhaka. The Elysee Palace termed Bangladesh a “model country” in terms of public finance management, with a debt level of around 40 per cent.
Why France is prioritizing Bangladesh?
Over the past decade, France and Bangladesh have witnessed a notable enhancement in their bilateral relations, reflecting a shared commitment to cooperation and mutual development. Both countries, located in different regions of the world with diverse cultural backgrounds, have found common ground on several diplomatic, economic, and environmental fronts.
Firstly, unlike many other developing countries, Bangladesh is not being squeezed by creditors and is one the path of coming out from the poverty, will be materialized with the LDC graduation in 2026 and becoming one of the 30 largest economies in the world by 2030. With the successful economic triumph and eight largest population of about 170 million, France is well-attracted for becoming the development partner of the country.
Secondly, following the occurrences of coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, the most recent coup in Niger has prompted France to reassess its enduring influence in the area, as its former colonies actively reject the remnants of its historical presence. Macron’s visit to Bangladesh, particularly after his recent trip to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Sri Lanka, can be seen as France’s push to consolidate its presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Finally, the world powers—the United States, China and Russia, are competing geopolitically for taking Bangladesh into their umbrella. If the relationship with one party is warm, there is a risk of angering the other party. In such a reality, France wants to be a safe alternative power for Bangladesh. French President Emmanuel Macron, who wants to be an alternative power in the region, expressed his interest clearly during his two-day visit to Dhaka. Besides, he assured to stand by and cooperate with Bangladesh in achieving the goal of building Smart Bangladesh—the vision of achieving the status of developed nation.
Outcome from the visit
Diplomatic ties between France and Bangladesh have grown significantly stronger in the last decade. The visit of Macron is the first visit of a French president in 33 years since 1990. He signed two instruments related to the management of urban municipalities and building the first-ever earth observation satellite during his visit. Bangladesh also committed to buy 10 aircraft from Airbus for $3.2 billion, the aviation manufacturing giant based in southwestern France and main global rival to the U.S.-based Boeing Co.
- Strategic Cooperation
During a joint news conference after meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, he reiterated France’s vision of a “free, open, inclusive, secure and peaceful Indo-Pacific,” while expressing interest in working with like-minded countries. Most importantly, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina welcomed her French counterpart, seeing Macron’s “push for strategic autonomy” aligned with Bangladesh’s foreign policy.
As Bangladesh wants to maintain its ‘balancing position’, the country is actively seeking to transform this bilateral relationship with France into a strategic partnership that is essential for Bangladesh’s long-term national interest. Both countries are willing to cooperate in aviation, defense industries, cyberspace, and technology transfers. Overall, this visit has been fruitful and has potential spillover effects on the Bangladesh-European Union relationship.
- Economic Collaboration
Economic cooperation between France and Bangladesh has expanded in recent years, with both countries exploring opportunities for trade and investment. France has become one of Bangladesh’s important trading partners in the European Union. Key areas of economic collaboration include the textile and garment industry, telecommunications, and renewable energy.
French companies have invested in Bangladesh’s energy sector, particularly in solar power projects, aligning with Bangladesh’s commitment to sustainable energy solutions. Total trade between the two countries soared from €210 million Euros in 1990 to €4.9 billion euros in 2023, with France being Bangladesh’s 5th largest export destination. Evidently, the possibilities are endless if both countries, especially Bangladesh, continue to explore and engage in mutually beneficial projects.
- Defense and Security Cooperation
Security cooperation has gained prominence in France-Bangladesh relations. Both nations have cooperated in counterterrorism efforts and have engaged in joint military exercises. France has provided support for capacity-building in the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard, emphasizing the importance of maritime security in the Bay of Bengal. These efforts aim to enhance regional stability and security.
Bangladesh announced to modernize its military under the Forces Goal 2030. Under the scheme, the country has bought 16 fighter jets from China. However, to reduce reliance on China and to include western fighter jets in their arsenal, Bangladesh decided to choose between Euro fighter Typhoon and French Rafale. During Hasina’s visit to France in 2021, the two countries signed a letter of intent on defense cooperation. And the visit of Macron will obviously increase the potentiality for the rafale deal.
- Development Assistance
France has extended development assistance to Bangladesh in various sectors, particularly in areas such as healthcare, education, and infrastructure development. France’s commitment to sustainable development aligns with Bangladesh’s national priorities. The partnership between the two nations has contributed to the improvement of living standards and social development in Bangladesh.
French company Thales is already working on setting up a radar system at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. The same company manufactured Bangladesh’s first satellite— Bangabandhu-1, that was launched in 2018.
- Cooperation on Climate Adaptation
France has consistently supported Bangladesh on various international platforms, including the United Nations, where they share common interests such as climate change mitigation, peacekeeping, and sustainable development. In 2015, France played a crucial role in the signing of the Paris Agreement, an accord aimed at addressing climate change, and Bangladesh has been an active participant in these climate negotiations.
An extremely high population density of over 1,200 inhabitants per square kilometer, one of the highest in the world that causes environmental challenges for the country. For that, Bangladesh is undoubtedly the country most vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. According to the IPCC, if the ocean level were to rise by one meter, it would cover almost 17% of Bangladesh’s surface area. As part of the French initiative to support climate change adaptation and mitigation, Agence Française de Développement (AFD)’s commitment multiplied in recent years to €2 billion euros. An additional €1 billion is now in the pipeline for AFD projects over the next three years.
Challenges and Future Prospects
While the France-Bangladesh relationship has witnessed significant progress, challenges remain. Trade imbalances, bureaucratic hurdles, and differences in approach to certain global issues can pose challenges. However, the commitment to dialogue and cooperation remains strong.
Looking ahead, there are numerous opportunities for both countries to further deepen their ties. Collaboration in the fields of science and technology, innovation, and renewable energy presents potential areas of growth. Additionally, as Bangladesh continues to make strides in achieving middle-income status, the country’s economic and strategic importance in the region is likely to increase, making it a valuable partner for France in the Indo-Pacific region.
The France-Bangladesh relationship over the past decade has evolved into a multifaceted partnership that encompasses diplomacy, economics, culture, education, and security. The growing cooperation between these two nations reflects their shared values and mutual interests. As the global landscape continues to evolve, the relationship between France and Bangladesh is poised to play a vital role in addressing regional and global challenges, ultimately contributing to the well-being of both nations and the international community as a whole.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.