50 years later – OpEd – Eurasia Review
February 14, 2022 marked the golden jubilee of relations between Bangladesh and France. During these 50 years, the two countries have ensured significant progress in the socio-political and economic aspects. France has developed its high-tech capabilities while Bangladesh is currently in the process of transitioning from Least Developed Country (LDC) to Developing Country (DP) status. The two countries have also enjoyed warm and beneficial relations with hardly any disputes. Assessing the trajectory of the relationship over the past 50 years suggests that there is considerable leeway for both countries to ensure the mutual benefits of these ties. Therefore, the two countries should redouble their efforts to raise ties to a new level to ensure mutual benefits in the future.
Bilateral relations between the countries started on Valentine’s Day in 1972. A month later, Bangladesh established its diplomatic mission in Paris on March 17, 1972. Later, the French Embassy was also established in Dhaka. However, Franco-Banglaese relations are much older than that. Relations began in the 17th century when French merchants and physiocrats came to Bengal. Even in the Battle of Plessy, French soldiers also fought alongside the last ruler, Siraj-Ud-Daulah. Prior to official recognition, French public support helped Bangladesh in its war of liberation.
Over the decades, high-level visits cemented the relationship. In 1989, then President of Bangladesh, HM Ershad visited Paris. Later in 1990, French President Francois Mitterrand paid a visit to Bangladesh. After that, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Paris in 1999 and recently in November 2021. Besides these visits, several ministerial visits have also taken place, including the visit of French Defense Minister Parly to Bangladesh in 2020.
High-level visits and relations with embassies also resulted in the signing of several agreements between the countries, including the nuclear agreement in 1980, the investment protection agreement in 1985, the prevention of double taxation in 1987, the cultural cooperation agreement in 1987 and the air services agreement in 1998. Besides these agreements, Bangladesh also found France on its side in the 2017 Rohingya crisis. France has facilitated high-level UNGA meetings and promotes Rohingya rights on the international stage.
Growing economic relations
As bilateral relations have been cemented over the years, economic relations have also grown between the countries thereafter. In 2020, bilateral trade reached 2.76 billion euros. Bangladesh exported goods worth €2.52 billion to France while imported goods worth €250 million from France. It should be mentioned that in 2020, bilateral trade decreased by 15% compared to last year due to the pandemic effect. Ready-made garments (RMG), frozen food and leather products are Bangladesh’s main export items to France, while France exports electrical machinery to Bangladesh.
Besides the booming economic ties, the two countries also share development cooperation. French cooperation began in Bangladesh in 1990 when President Mitterrand facilitated flood prevention and dam projects to solve the recurrent problem of flooding in Bangladesh. Since then, several French projects have found their place in Bangladesh, contributing to Bangladesh’s thirst for development. France currently has a green and inclusive growth project of 367 million euros. It also owns a water production plant in Narayanganj worth 275 million euros. Apart from these projects, the Lafarge-Surma plant is worth around 253 million euros jointly owned by Bangladesh and France.
However, the two countries have also developed cooperation in the field of high technology and defense. Thales, a French technology company, also manufactured Bangladesh’s first-ever satellite, Bangabandhu-1. In addition, Thales is also currently working on the modernization of the air traffic system. Other important cooperations include the joint Danone-Grameen project to end malnutrition in Bangladesh. And last but not least, during the Covid-19, the French government also granted “Covid-19” loans worth 150 million to Bangladesh. Apart from the loans, it has also provided 5.38 million doses of vaccine to Bangladesh, with many more to come.
In the age of globalization, the people-to-people relationship between two great nations has grown tremendously. The two countries share a positive view of each other in general. The intercultural link increased after the cultural cooperation agreement of 1987.
Gradually, French soft power is strengthening in Bangladesh. The Alliance française and several French departments of public and private universities increase the popularity of the French language. Moreover, since French is one of the official languages of the UN, many universities now offer it as a compulsory course. On the other hand, French philosophy, literature, novels, music and films are also becoming popular among young people.
While French soft power is growing in Bangladesh, the representation of Bangladesh is also growing in French society. According to Insee 2017 statistics, 14,400 Bangladeshi nationals live in France. After five years of statistics, in 2022 the number has undoubtedly increased. As the size of the diaspora community grows, the globalization of Bengali culture is also occurring on a larger scale. Several exhibitions also take place in Paris, highlighting Bangladesh. In addition, this diaspora community contributes to the French economy and sends funds back to Bangladesh.
Future Relationship Potentials
The assessment of the relations and the current context suggests that, for both countries, vast opportunities present themselves in the political, social and economic fields. Bangladesh is a “Frontier Five” economy. Due to its appetite for development and safe investment environment, it is a perfect place for foreign direct investment. France can seize the opportunity to invest in Bangladesh. In addition, France has developed a strong capacity in High Technology. Bangladesh can benefit from these technologies from France. The latest bilateral visit produced a joint statement in which the two countries announced their intention to increase cooperation in this field, including defense equipment. The two countries can also increase their cooperation in the field of start-ups. France has an excellent ecosystem for start-ups, named “La French Tech”, where Bangladeshi start-ups would find the desired facilities.
However, in the current geopolitical and geoeconomic environment, especially in the Quad standoff against China, the Indo-Pacific region has become an important area of international politics. Bangladesh follows a balancing policy and has not yet chosen a side. In this context, France has already announced its Indo-Pacific strategy. Due to Bangladesh’s geostrategic location, Bangladesh can also work with France to ensure a safe and secure Indo-Pacific region. In the latest joint statement, the two countries also announced their faith in a free, open, peaceful and inclusive Indo-Pacific region based on international law.
In addition, there is also an opportunity to increase academic relations between countries. France has an excellent education sector which is very desirable for aspiring Bangladeshi students. Both countries should set up dedicated scholarship programs and introduce simplified visa processing to speed up student migration. These students will contribute to the space of French knowledge and will become the agent of exchange of “know-how” and intercultural experience between countries. And finally, when Bangladesh completes its transition from LDC to DC in 2026, it will need French support to benefit from the EU’s GSP+ scheme to ensure a smooth export model.
Existing barriers and way forward
Between countries, there are hardly any bones of contention between them. But the rise of Islamophobia and the dubious use of freedom of expression create a negative image of France in Bangladesh. Recent comments and satirical portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad have created protests in Bangladesh. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against this, and they also called for a boycott of French products. But the government rejected these demands and kept control of the demonstration. Strong people-to-people relationships and cross-cultural exchanges would help countries avoid such incidents and reactions in the future. Therefore, the two countries should make additional efforts to solve this problem.
In conclusion, the assessment of the relations of the past fifty years suggests that the two countries enjoy warm relations with hardly any disputes between them. There are also many potentials to be explored that would benefit both countries in achieving their desired national goals. Thus, the two countries should address these possible expanses and make additional efforts to take relations to a new level.
*MARYLAND Mufassir RashidMSS in International Political Economy (in progress), Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh