Phnom Penh, Cambodia — France and Cambodia have signed a $235 million aid agreement for drinking water and energy infrastructure development, as well as vocational training.
The deal is part of a move to boost bilateral relations between the two countries, which have maintained a postcolonial dialogue since Cambodia became independent in 1953.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet met with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace and announced the pact last week. It was the West Point graduate’s first official visit to a Western power since succeeding his father, Hun Sen, in August.
“Cambodia will always remember France’s role in contributing to national economic recovery and development through the French Development Agency,” Hun Manet said at a press conference alongside Macron.
“I hope that my visit to France, especially with the president, will enable us to discuss the work that needs to further strengthen Cambodia-France relations,” Hun Manet said Thursday.
The meeting with Macron came just months after France joined other European Union countries in expressing concern about July’s election, in which Cambodia’s main opposition party was barred from participating.
After July’s elections, in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all but five seats in parliament, France called for the release of jailed opposition politicians and respect for Cambodia’s democratic obligations under international pacts and domestic law.
Former Prime Minister Hun Sen was the ruling party’s prime minister candidate in the election but quickly stepped down to make way for his son in a long-planned succession. Hun Sen remains the president of the ruling party and is expected to be the president of the Senate after elections in late February.
Hun Manet’s first trip after succeeding his father in August was to Beijing, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People. Cambodia has long supported China in return for receiving significant investments, loans and grants to build infrastructure, according to analysts.
Cambodia’s democratic donors have largely set aside differences over political freedom and human rights to focus on areas of cooperation with the new government in Phnom Penh.
During the visit, Macron reiterated France’s appreciation of Cambodia’s position at the United Nations regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, according to the joint statement.
Cambodia has repeatedly voted with Ukraine’s supporters in condemning Russia’s invasion, in a rare break with China on the world stage.
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is in exile in France, criticized Macron in a post on Facebook and an opinion article in The Geopolitics for legitimizing Hun Manet’s rule.
“Macron has clearly made the calculation that it is better to engage with dictators rather than deny them legitimacy,” he wrote.
“There is no sign that Macron, along with some other Western leaders, fully understands the unseen impacts of affording high-profile acceptance and credibility to dictators such as Hun Manet,” Sam Rainsy added. “An official visit to a venue such as the Elysee is a major propaganda coup for any such regime. It gives an unequivocal message to the Cambodian regime and the Cambodian people that arrests of and violence against opposition supporters can continue.”
Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, told VOA Khmer on Friday that the visit showed that the Cambodian government and its new prime minister were recognized by the world’s leaders and other officials.
Before traveling to France, Manet also attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. While there, he met with Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In a post on X, Power said they discussed “opportunities to build a more productive relationship.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, criticized Power’s approach:
“How about talking about human rights, Samantha? #Cambodia has descended into a single party dictatorship under the Hun family and you want a ‘more productive’ relationship? Aiya! How about some sanctions instead?”