PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his presidential palace Thursday for controversial dinner that marks another step in the Saudi leader’s diplomatic rehabilitation -- a move that has drawn harsh criticism in France after the gruesome Saudi killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The visit from the prince of the oil-rich state comes after France and other European nations are seeking to secure sources of energy to lessen their dependence on oil and gas supplies from Russia amid its war on Ukraine. France is also a major weapons and defense supplier to Gulf nations.
This was the second stop — after Greece — of the crown prince’s first official visit to the European Union since Khashoggi’s death.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Macron could be counted on to raise human rights concerns with the prince, while also seeking to secure energy supplies from elsewhere than Russia.
“Obviously, this isn't about casting aside our principles. It's not about calling into question our commitment in favor of human rights. The president will surely have an opportunity to talk about this with Mr. Mohammed bin Salman," Borne said.
But she added: “In a context where we know that Russia is cutting, is threatening to cut, and is again cutting gas supplies and where we have tensions over energy prices, I think the French would not understand if we didn't talk to the countries that are the exact producers of energy.”
Russian energy corporation Gazprom on Wednesday cut the amount of natural gas flowing through a major pipeline from Russia to Europe to 20% of capacity, blaming technical problems. Germany, however, called it a deliberate move to sow uncertainty and push up prices amid the war in Ukraine.
European nations are rushing to bolster gas storage levels for winter amid fears that Russia could completely cut off gas exports — which are used for industry and to generate electricity and heat homes — to try to gain political leverage over the bloc.
Hours before the leaders' meeting, the crown prince was targeted in a legal complaint filed Thursday in a Paris court by a human rights group that alleged his complicity in Khashoggi's killing.
A Washington-based group, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), called on French authorities to open a criminal investigation into the crown prince. The group said it filed a complaint arguing that the prince was an accomplice to the torture of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and his disappearance.
It said two other rights groups backed its call for a French investigation and argued that the prince should not have immunity from prosecution because he is not the Saudi head of state.
The Paris prosecutors’ office said it had no information about the complaint.
The prince's trip is being seen as far from noble from other rights groups, too.
“By meeting with the crown prince on French soil, while Saudi dissidents remain wrongfully detained, trapped in the country through travel bans and targeted abroad, President Macron risks contributing to the dangerous normalization of a brutal man,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative.
Macron's dinner will cap a long day for the French leader: He was in Guinea-Bissau, wrapping up a three-nation, four-day tour of Africa, on Thursday morning.
The Elysee palace said the war in Ukraine will be high on the working dinner’s agenda and added that Macron would address “human rights,” without elaborating. A press spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practice, said “we have constantly said that the facts (of the killing) should be established.”
The crown prince has been steadily attracting big-name investors back to the kingdom since Khashoggi’s killing. He has also reset Saudi relations with Turkey, a key step toward rehabilitating his international standing.
Western intelligence determined that Prince Mohammed was complicit in the killing. The journalist’s body was dismembered with a bone saw, according to Turkish officials. The crown prince lost supporters in the West who were appalled and had previously been cheering his social reforms at home. He maintains he had no knowledge of the operation, despite it being carried out by people who directly reported to him.
Macron was one of the highest-profile world leaders to meet the prince shortly after the killing, during a tense chat caught on camera at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina in 2018. They have met several times since.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and John Leicester contributed from Le Pecq, France.