February 14th, 2022 marked the golden jubilee of Bangladesh-France relations. During these 50 years, both countries have ensured significant progress in socio-political and economic aspects. France has developed its capabilities in high technology while Bangladesh is currently in the process of its graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) to Developing Country (DC). Both countries have also maintained warm and benefitting relations with hardly any dispute. Assessing the trajectory of the relations of last 50 years suggest that there is a large scope for both countries to ensure mutual benefits from these ties. Therefore, both countries should make further effort to take the ties to a new height to ensure mutual benefits in the future.
The bilateral relations between the countries began on the Valentine’s Day in 1972. One month later, Bangladesh established its diplomatic mission in Paris on March 17th, 1972. Later on, the French embassy was also established in Dhaka. However, the French-Bangla relations are much older than that. The connections began in the 17th century when French merchants and physiocrats came to then Bengal. Even in the battle of Plessy, French soldiers also fought side by side with the last sovereign, Siraj-Ud-Daulah. Before formal recognition, French public support helped Bangladesh in its Liberation war.
Over the decades, high-level visits have cemented the relations. In 1989, then President of Bangladesh- HM Ershad, visited Paris. Later in 1990, French President Francois Mitterand paid a visit to Bangladesh. After that, PM Sheikh Hasina visited Paris in 1999 and recently in November 2021. Apart from these visits, several ministerial visits also took place, including French Defense Minister Parly’s visit to Bangladesh in 2020.
The high-level visits and embassy relations also resulted in signing several agreements between the countries, including nuclear agreement in 1980, Investment protection agreement in 1985, double taxation avoidance agreement in 1987, Cultural Cooperation Agreement in 1987, and Air-Service agreement in 1998. Apart from these agreements, Bangladesh also found France on its side in the Rohingya crisis of 2017. France has facilitated high-level UNGA meetings and promotes the right of Rohingya in the international arena.
Growing Economic Relations
As the bilateral relations cemented over the years, economic relations also increased between the countries subsequently. By 2020, the bilateral trade reached 2.76 Billion Euros. Bangladesh exported goods worth 2.52 Billion Euros to France while imported goods worth 250 million Euros from France. It is worth mentioning that by 2020 the bilateral trade decreased by 15% than the last year due to the pandemic effect. Ready-Made Garments (RMG), frozen foods, and leather products are the main export product for Bangladesh to France, while France exports electric machinery to Bangladesh.
Apart from burgeoning economic ties, both countries also share cooperation in the arena of development. The French cooperation began in Bangladesh in 1990 when President Mitterand facilitated flood prevention and dam projects to address Bangladesh’s recurring flood problem. Since then, several French projects have found their way into Bangladesh, contributing to Bangladesh’s thirst for development. At present, France has a green and inclusive growth project worth 367 Million Euros. It also has a water production plant in Narayanganj worth 275 Million Euros. Apart from these projects, the Lafarge-Surma factory is worth around 253 million euros jointly owned by Bangladesh and France.
However, both countries also have developed cooperation in the field of high -technology and defense. Thales- a French technology company, also manufactured Bangladesh’s first-ever satellite, Bangabandhu-1. Besides, Thales is also working on modernizing Air Traffic system currently. Other significant cooperation includes the Danone-Grameen joint project to end malnutrition in Bangladesh. And last but not least, during the Covid-19, the French government has also provided ‘Covid-19’ loans worth 150 million to Bangladesh. Apart from loans, it also provided 5.38 million vaccine doses to Bangladesh, with many more to come in the future.
In the age of globalization, the people-to-people connection between two great nations has increased drastically. Both countries share a positive outlook about each other in general. The cross-culture connection increased after the Cultural cooperation agreement of 1987.
Gradually, French soft power is increasing in Bangladesh. Alliance Francais and several French-language departments in Public and Private Universities are increasing the popularity of the French language. Besides, as French is one of the UN official languages, many universities are now offering it as a mandatory course. On the other hand, French philosophy, literature, novels, music, and movies are also becoming popular among the youngsters.
While French soft power is increasing in Bangladesh, Bangladesh’s representation is also growing in French society. According to Insee Statistics 2017, 14400 Bangladeshi nationals are living in France. After five years of the statistics, by 2022, the number has increased undoubtedly. As the size of the diaspora community is expanding, globalization of Bengali culture is also taking place on a larger scale. Several exhibitions are also taking place in Paris, highlighting Bangladesh. Furthermore, this diaspora community contributes to the French economy and sends back remittances to Bangladesh.
Future Potentials of the Relations
Assessing the relations and current context suggest that, for both countries, vast opportunities are lying ahead in the political, social, and economic arena. 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 avail the opportunity of investing in Bangladesh. Besides, France has developed a strong capability in High technology. Bangladesh can avail these technologies from France. The latest bilateral visit produced a joint statement where both countries announced their intention to increase cooperation in this area, including defense hardware. Both countries can also increase their cooperation in the field of start-ups. France has an excellent ecosystem for start-up businesses, named ‘La French Tech’ where Bangladeshi start-ups would find their desired facilities.
However, in the current geopolitical and geo-economic environment, especially in the Quad vs. China stalemate, the Indo-Pacific region has become an important area of international politics. Bangladesh follows a policy of Balancing and has yet to pick any side. In this context, France has already announced its Indo-Pacific strategy. Due to Bangladesh’s geo-strategic location, Bangladesh can also work with France in ensuring a safe and secure Indo-Pacific region. In the latest joint statement, both countries have also announced their belief in a free, open, peaceful, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region based on international law.
Besides, there is also a possible scope to increase academic relations between the countries. France has an excellent education sector which is very desirable to aspiring Bangladeshi students. Both countries should establish dedicated scholarship programs and introduce easy visa processing to accelerate student migration. These students will contribute to the French knowledge space and become the agent of ‘know-how’ exchange and cross-culture experience between the countries. And lastly, when Bangladesh completes its graduation from LDC to DC in 2026, it will need French support to avail of EU’s GSP+ scheme to ensure a smooth export pattern.
Existing Hurdles and Way Forward
Between the countries, there are hardly any apples of discord among them. But, the growing Islamophobia and questionable use of freedom of expression are creating a negative image of France in Bangladesh. The recent comments and depicting Prophet Muhammad in satire have created Bangladesh protests. Thousands of people took on the streets to protest against it, and they also called for boycotting French products. But the government rejected such demands and kept the protest within control. Strong people-to-people connections and cross-culture exchange would allow the countries to avoid such incidents and reactions in the future. Therefore, both countries should put extra effort into addressing this issue.
In conclusion, assessing the relations of the last fifty years suggests that both countries are enjoying warm relations with hardly any dispute among them. There are also a lot of potentials to explore that would benefit both the countries in achieving their desired national objectives. So, both countries should address these possible scopes and make extra efforts to take the relations to a new height.