French President Emmanuel Macron gave his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi France’s highest award on his state visit to Paris this week, a presidential official has said, adding to the controversy over the hugely contentious trip.
Activists who had warned Macron not to roll out the red carpet for el-Sisi were already enraged by the French leader’s refusal to condition deepening defence and trade ties with Egypt on its respect for human rights.
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Macron decorated el-Sisi with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour during the visit, a French presidential official said on Thursday, insisting that the gesture was an unavoidable part of protocol on a state visit.
“The bestowing of awards is one of the traditional elements of state visits, which are rare, with just one to two per year in France,” a French diplomatic source who asked not to be named told the AFP news agency.
“And as they are heads of state, they receive the highest distinction,” said the source.
Images of the ceremony emerged only after they were published by the Egyptian presidency. It was the Egyptian delegation that filmed the event.
The award ceremony did not feature on the official agenda given to French reporters.
French media were also barred from filming other stages of his visit to Paris, including his arrival at the presidential palace for a state dinner and his meeting with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
French broadcaster TMC later aired footage found on the website of the Egyptian presidency.
Other heads of state to have been given the Legion of Honour have included the kings of Spain, the Netherlands and Morocco, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who received the Legion of Honour in 2006.
France also bestowed the award on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2001, although Macron launched a procedure to strip him of the honour due to the Syrian civil war. Al-Assad himself gave it back after Paris took part in air attacks on Syria.
Activists had expressed unease over el-Sisi’s three-day visit that ended on Tuesday, saying that France should be doing more to raise a concern about the estimated 60,000 political prisoners languishing in Egyptian prisons.
In advance of the visit, a dozen rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said France had “long indulged President al-Sisi’s brutal repression of any form of dissent”.
Egypt and France have enjoyed an increasingly close relationship under the rule of former army general el-Sisi, with common interests in the Middle East and a shared suspicion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
El-Sisi came to power in 2014 in the wake of the overthrow in 2013 of then-President Mohamed Morsi by the military which el-Sisi then led.
Those caught in the crackdown include supporters of the overthrown Morsi, as well as left-wing activists and liberals.