Features | Politics | South Asia

Bangladesh’s Government Caught in the Crossfire as Its Public Assails France

Amid COVID-19, the South Asian country needs its economic partnerships with France more than ever. Will public opinion get in the way?

Austin Bodetti
Bangladesh’s Government Caught in the Crossfire as Its Public Assails France

Supporters of Islamist parties carry an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest after Friday prayers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

Bangladesh finds itself at a crossroads because of events half a world away. On October 16, a Chechen refugee beheaded a French schoolteacher who had presented derogatory caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in class. Just two weeks later, a Tunisian immigrant stabbed three residents of Nice to death in what French President Emmanuel Macron termed an “Islamist terrorist attack.” French authorities responded with a crackdown on Islamists that Muslims across the world, including in Bangladesh, have criticized as Islamophobic.

On November 2, at least 50,000 demonstrators gathered in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka to protest Macron’s strident rhetoric against religious fanaticism, which has veered into criticism of Islam itself. While Macron described France as “under attack,” French security forces closed a mosque linked to “the Islamist movement,” dissolved religious associations, and raided over 120 homes. Critics accuse France of conflating Islam with violent extremism.

Macron presaged his administration’s contentious offensive with a controversial speech in early October, asserting that France needed to develop “an Islam of Enlightenment.” Though popular with a domestic, non-Muslim audience that supports France’s aggressive interpretation of secularism, Macron’s policies have provoked condemnation throughout the Muslim world. Kuwait and Qatar are boycotting French products, and France recalled its ambassador to Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned Macron’s mental health.

Bangladeshi protesters found vivid ways to display their own anger at France. One Dhaka mosque pasted a picture of Macron with a superimposed boot print in its entryway, inviting worshippers to step over his face. The same image appeared on the floor at a shopping mall in Gulshan Thana, the wealthy Dhaka neighborhood that houses the French embassy. On social media, demonstrators have even posted videos of themselves lining up to hit printouts of Macron’s face.

Despite protesters calling on Bangladesh to enact measures similar to the Kuwaiti and Qatari embargoes, the South Asian country has less room to maneuver than its counterparts in the Persian Gulf. The relationship between Bangladesh and France — little discussed in the news media — has yielded important economic, military, and political benefits for leaders in Dhaka. A Bangladeshi-led boycott of French goods could jeopardize these burgeoning ties.

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“It’s our long-standing policy having respect for each other,” Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said in the wake of the protests. Momen warned Bangladeshis against letting the religious dispute undermine Bangladesh’s promising economic relationship with France.

In 2015, Bangladesh exported $1.76 billion in clothing, fish, plastics, and other products to France, compared to just under $1.3 billion in 2012. The Bangladeshi embassy in Paris has also celebrated other examples of French investment, namely a $253 million cement factory in the town of Chhatak as well as “challenging investments” undertaken by the French companies Adhipress, Degrémont, Sanofi, and Total SE. As early as 2006, Danone launched a joint venture with Grameen Bank, a Bangladeshi financial institution.

Given the damage that the coronavirus has dealt to Bangladesh’s economy, the South Asian country needs its partnership with France more than ever. Analysts predict that the pandemic, which has killed over 6,100 in Bangladesh, could double the number of Bangladeshis below the poverty threshold to 40.9 percent. During the early months of the pandemic, global brands canceled as much as $3 billion in orders of Bangladeshi-made garments.

As Bangladesh seeks to rehabilitate an economy dependent on international trade, the South Asian country will likely take steps to avoid antagonizing its business partners. When protesters converged on the French embassy in Dhaka in early November, Bangladesh’s police laid barbed wire across roads to prevent the demonstrators from reaching the compound.

Bangladesh’s security forces may have their own incentive to stay on good terms with France. Citing “diplomatic sources in Paris,” the Bangladeshi newspaper New Age reported during French Defense Minister Florence Parly’s visit to Dhaka in March that France was considering selling Bangladesh the Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft and unspecified combat drones. Though unconfirmed, the report suggests that the Bangladesh Armed Forces want to continue a relationship begun in 2012, when Bangladesh purchased two military helicopters from Airbus.

Bangladesh and France’s ties across a range of sectors will deter Bangladeshi leaders from taking too hard a line against Macron. Between 2012 and 2018, the French Development Agency gave Bangladesh 367 million euros for “urban development infrastructures, green energy and improving safety standards and environmental and social performance in the textiles industry.” In the wake of the pandemic, Bangladesh will need humanitarian aid that much more.

Back in March, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her country’s interest in collaborating with the United Kingdom to combat the coronavirus. With France working to develop a vaccine, Bangladeshi officials may seek to coordinate with their French counterparts as well. Bangladesh has already permitted China to test one of its own vaccines in the South Asian country, and Bangladeshi leaders are also seeking priority access to a vaccine made in India. Bangladeshi sentiment may stand in the way of similar cooperation with France, however.

Junaid Babunagari, a top official in the Islamist advocacy group Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, has urged Hasina to condemn Macron and even requested that the United Nations “take stern action against France.” Babunagari then went a step further, pressuring the country’s leadership to cut diplomatic ties with France.

If Bangladesh makes any near-term moves seen as benefiting France — whether courting French investment, importing French warplanes, or purchasing a French vaccine — officials in Dhaka risk provoking the wrath of Bangladeshi demonstrators, Islamists, and voters alike.

Macron may be offering Bangladesh a way out. In a late October interview with Al-Jazeera, the French president said, in response to Muslims’ criticism of his words and actions, “I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them” — a small but significant peace offering. While Macron’s remarks did little to quiet Bangladeshi protesters, his interview with a Qatari publication implies a willingness to walk back his most incendiary rhetoric. Bangladesh, in turn, can refrain from criticizing Macron if he attempts to make further amends for his comments.

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At the same time, Bangladesh may feel less pressure to act when other countries in the region are leading a rebuke of Macron and France as a whole. Indonesian President Joko Widodo lambasted the French leader for having “insulted Islam,” and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has wrestled with violent extremism at home, tweeted, “This is a time when President Macron could have put a healing touch and denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarization and marginalization that inevitably leads to radicalization.”

The most likely path forward for Bangladesh will capture the fewest headlines: waiting until protests subside before pushing ahead with any major French-linked initiatives. This approach will all but guarantee that Bangladesh and France continue to cooperate on economic and military matters, as the two countries did before Macron’s latest controversy. In the end, though, the strategy’s success will depend on how Bangladeshis themselves react.

Journalist Shakil Bin Mushtaq contributed reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.