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Paris (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron backed visiting Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his country's fight against terrorism on Tuesday and brushed off calls to pressure him on human rights.
The 39-year-old French centrist had faced calls from rights groups to raise torture and political repression in Egypt publicly after the first face-to-face meeting between the pair. But Macron said he would not "give lessons" to a sovereign state.
Instead, Macron stressed how Egypt was a vital partner in the fight against Islamist extremism in the Middle East and Europe, as well as key in the search for lasting political solutions in war-wracked Libya and Syria.
"The first battle that we have in common is the fight against terrorism," Macron said during a joint press conference which underlined their common purpose against extremists that have claimed hundreds of victims in both countries.
Macron said he had stated that combating extremism "should be carried out with respect for the rule of law and human rights," but declined to criticise Sisi's record since he seized power in 2013.
As French president Macron said, "I would not accept that another leader gave me lessons about how to govern my country... I believe in the sovereignty of states and I am not here to give lessons without taking account of the context."
The former investment banker, elected in May, has promised a pragmatic, results-oriented foreign policy, but also one that sees France uphold its historic mission of defending human rights.
Egypt is a major buyer of French military equipment with orders worth more than 5.0 billion euros ($5.8 billion) since 2015.
They include an order for 24 fighter jets from the Rafale series for which France had long struggled to find a buyer.
French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said Tuesday that Macron and Sisi would discuss the possibility of further Rafale orders.
"If there can be new contracts, all the better," he told Europe 1 radio.
Macron's backing for Egypt's tough stance on security is in line with that of other Western leaders, who see Sisi as a source of stability.
US President Donald Trump memorably praised the Egyptian for doing a "fantastic job" in April.
Human rights groups, however, accuse Sisi of overseeing a crackdown on the media, NGOs and political opponents.
The most populous country in the Middle East is fighting the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group in the north of the Sinai peninsula and has faced a series of attacks that has affected its vital tourism industry.
At least 16 Egyptian police officers were killed at the weekend in an ambush by fighters in the country's Western Desert in a rare flare-up outside the Sinai.
Macron and Sisi both stressed the need to step up the fight against terrorism in Egypt's lawless neighbour Libya, where IS jihadists have gained a foothold.
- No torture? -
Asked by a French reporter about allegations that an Italian academic researcher found murdered in Egypt in 2016 died after being tortured by the police, Sisi defended his security services.
"We do not practise torture," he said, adding: "The Egyptian people refuses all violent practises or dictatorship and failures to respect human rights."
He also said that journalists and unnamed groups, which he accused of trying to undermine the country, were wrongly fixated on "political rights" in Egypt and overlooked the rights of victims of terrorism.
Sisi ousted the country's first civilian president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, and insists that his priority is to restore law and order and provide jobs to ordinary Egyptians.
- Stubborn but discreet? -
Macron raised the cases of 15 activists or journalists behind bars in Egypt in private and would "wait for some progress", an aide told reporters after the talks, on condition of anonymity.
In the lead up to the visit, Macron's aides had stressed that human rights would be discussed behind closed doors.
Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had urged the French leader to make economic cooperation and military support conditional on improvements in human rights.
The head of Human Rights Watch in France, Benedicte Jeannerod, urged Macron to end "France's disgraceful policies of indulgence toward al-Sisi's repressive government."