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Hollande’s ethical diplomacy called into question

François Hollande has recently met with the controversial king of Bahrain and Gabon’s president - leaders accused of being repressive or corrupt. The meetings have not been kept secret, but have been discreet.

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On January 22, 2012 French President François Hollande –  at the time just a presidential candidate – stood in front of thousands of cheering supporters at a rally at the Le Bourget conference centre near Paris and blasted Nicolas Sarkozy’s track record on foreign policy.

“Being the president of the Republic means being firm… [it means] not inviting dictators to Paris,” Hollande lectured. Names were carefully omitted from the Socialist leader’s speech, but there was no doubt he was referring to Sarkozy’s now infamous reception for the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at the Elysée Presidential Palace in December 2007.

In addition, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is fighting a bloody civil war against rebels, visited Sarkozy in Paris in July 2008 and again in November 2009.

Eight months after his speech at Le Bourget, Hollande now holds the keys to the Elysée and feels less inclined to give lessons and point fingers than he did when he was in the opposition.

Never say never

It was with the same uncomfortable smile Sarkozy offered Gaddafi back in 2007, that Hollande shook hands with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain on July 23.

Manama brutally put down a wave of peaceful anti-government protesters between February 14 and March 17, 2011. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) at least 60 people have been killed by the government since March, and many protesters remain jailed.

The king’s visit was official, with France’s Republican Guard welcoming Khalifa at the airport and a photo-op on the steps of the Elysée. However, the visit was not mentioned in the Hollande’s agenda on the Elysée’s official website, and no official statement was issued after the two heads-of-state held talks and signed accords.

Nadege Puljak, an Elysée correspondent at the AFP news agency, expressed her surprise at Khalifa’s visit on the micro-blogging site Twitter.

It was the Bahrain News Agency who revealed that, among other accords, France agreed to modernise the Aluminium Bahrain company in a deal worth 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion) and consolidate bilateral military cooperation with the Gulf kingdom.

The hushed meeting was later criticised in a joint letter to Hollande signed by HRW, Amnesty International and four other prominent rights groups.

“We wonder if the secrecy around this visit signals political embarrassment on your part - embarrassment that may be warranted given the continuing repression by Bahrain’s ruling family,” the July 26 letter read.

Hollande the accomplice?

Hollande’s rendezvous with the Bahranian king was not his first encounter with a controversial foreign dignitary. On July 5, Hollande met with controversial Gabonese President Ali Ben Bongo. On that day around 30 protesters gathered outside the Elysée to demand greater transparency in France’s dealings with its former African colonies; some of the participants held hand-made signs reading “Bongo dictator, Hollande accomplice”.

However Michel Galy, a policy analyst at the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CERC) and a professor at the Institute of International Relations (IRELI) in Paris, argued “It is difficult for France to exclude some heads of state. France has important expatriate populations, plus established military treaties and economic interests in certain countries.”

Indeed, Gabon is one of France’s most important African trading partners. French companies, like oil giant Total, mineral company Eramet, the Bolloré group, and the pharmaceutical firm Rougier are heavily invested in the central-African country.

“It is necessary to maintain diplomatic relations with these so-called democratorships,” Galy added, in reference to nominal democracies, like Gabon, that are infamous for limiting political participation and stifling freedoms.

A different style

While the Elysée’s door remains open to President Bongo, he has nevertheless found a cooler reception inside than his father enjoyed. Perhaps the times dictate austere gatherings, but Hollande has done away with the pomp that Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, was used to in the 1980s and ‘90s as Gabon’s ruler.

So far Hollande has been unwilling to shun controversial world leaders, but, as in so many other domains, has sought to distance himself from his predecessor Sarkozy’s notorious taste for extravagance.

For example, Sarkozy rolled out the red carpet for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit in November 2010, with full military honours and large swaths of Paris being draped with Chinese flags and cordoned off for the presidential motorcade.

But Hollande’s diplomatic record will probably be judged less for his house guests or the sober receptions, and more for his ability to broker peace deals or reinforce France’s position as a world leader.

Now in opposition, Sarkozy’s conservative and more hawkish UMP party has already slammed Hollande for his alleged failure to react in the face of the deepening political and humanitarian crisis in Syria.

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