French PM dodges rights questions in Vietnam

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french-pm-dodges-right-questionsFrance does not “sweep anything under a rug” when it comes to the issue of human rights in Vietnam, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted on Sunday, after sidestepping questions over the Asian country’s dismal record on dissent.

His comments came on the final day of a state visit to Vietnam, that was largely aimed at drumming up business deals with one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies as both sides signed contracts worth a total of nearly $12 billion.

But the French premier would not be drawn on the Communist government’s handling of dissent, which includes jailing people for posting their opinions about hot-button issues on Facebook.

More than 50 activists, rights campaigners and bloggers have been put behind bars in 2018, one of the harshest crackdowns in recent years.

When questioned by reporters in Ho Chi Minh City, Philippe insisted, “we do not sweep anything under the rug, but we have discussions with the Vietnamese authorities that do not go through the press”.

“We do it in forums that are going well, the way we have always done,” Philippe said after inaugurating a French medical centre in the city.

A source familiar with the meetings between the two governments told AFP human rights was brought up during talks on Friday, the day of Philippe’s arrival.

“The human rights issue was addressed in the talks. The Vietnamese authorities’ attention has been drawn to a list of individual cases,” said the source.

The French premier’s visit coincides with the recent release of a draft cybersecurity decree, which outlines how the draconian bill would be implemented.

It is expected to come into effect in January, and observers say that it mimics China’s repressive web control tools.

It would require tech companies to store data in the country, remove “toxic content” from websites, and hand over user information if requested by the government.

Critics of the bill say it will serve as a chokehold on dissent in the one-party state, where activists are routinely jailed and all independent media are banned.

Philippe will host a business forum with French tech entrepreneurs before departing in the evening for New Caledonia.

The jam-packed three-day visit also included a stop at Dien Bien Phu on Saturday, the site of an epic battle between France and Vietnam in 1954 that would spell the end of France’s colonial empire in Indochina.