President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that despite the human rights situation of the military-led regime, France would maintain defense and trade ties with Egypt as cooperation would help fight terrorism and contribute to regional stability.
Mr Macron spoke after inviting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for talks at the Elysee Palace, despite sharp criticism from international human rights groups and liberal and left-wing French politicians.
"I will not make our defense and economic cooperation based on these differences of opinion [about human rights]," Macron said at a joint press conference.
"It is better to have a sophisticated dialogue than a boycott policy that reduces the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism… It [a boycott] would be ineffective for human rights and counterproductive with regard to terrorism."
French officials said Paris will maintain its "strategic partnership" with Egypt not only because of terrorism, but also because the two countries share interests in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, where they face an increasingly aggressive Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan .
Official confirmation of Mr Sisi's visit to France last week coincided with the release of three Egyptian human rights activists.
On Friday, Egyptian prosecutors ordered the release from custody of three employees of the Egyptian Personal Rights Initiative, a prominent rights group and one of the last remaining organizations that still function despite crackdowns against civil society groups.
They were arrested in November and were released after international outcry from the United Nations, the EU and Joe Biden's new US administration for their freedom.
Mr Sisi avoided a question about the number of political prisoners in Egypt and rejected the idea that he was a savage despot. "I am responsible for protecting 100 million people," he said. "We are a nation trying to create a bright future for its citizens in a very unstable region."
Activists said the arrests of the three activists had to do with a meeting they held at their offices in Cairo for 13 Western diplomats, including the French ambassador. The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement following the arrest of the first employee, expressing concern and prompting a reprimand from Cairo.
Despite the release of the three EIPR workers, a terrorism court on Sunday froze their assets and bank accounts. The prosecution accused her of joining a terrorist organization and of spreading false news.
A fourth EIPR employee, Patrick Zaki, has been detained since February and is charged with, among other things, spreading false news and inciting protests. On Monday, a court extended his detention for another 45 days.
Egypt has bought billions of dollars' worth of warplanes and warships from France since Mr Sisi came to power in a 2013 popularly backed coup in which he ousted his elected Islamist predecessor.
Mr. Sisi has led one of the toughest crackdowns on dissent in modern Egyptian history. Tens of thousands of Islamists have been arrested, and detentions have been extended to include secular critics of the regime, journalists, human rights lawyers and democracy activists.
Many are vaguely charged, including membership of an unspecified terrorist organization or “sharing the targets” of a terrorist group. Human rights defenders are also concerned about the use of lengthy pre-trial detention, which can stretch for years, to punish peaceful dissidents.
The West is concerned about Islamist terrorism, migration and the breakup of Libya. He largely admitted and said little in public about the suppression of dissent and civil society in Egypt. President Donald Trump described Mr. Sisi as "my favorite dictator," and the two men appeared to be on good terms.