France defends Legion d'Honneur for Saudi prince


Paris (AFP)

France's foreign minister on Monday defended the awarding of the Legion d'Honneur, the country's highest honour, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, after it sparked harsh criticism on social media.

"It's a diplomatic tradition and I could tell you about many Legions d'Honneur that have been given," Jean-Marc Ayrault, the newly appointed foreign minister, told France Inter radio.

There was "nothing grandiose" about the ceremony, said Ayrault, adding that he could understand the negative reactions to the act.

President Francois Hollande awarded the honour to Nayef, who is also Saudi interior minister, during a visit on Friday for his "efforts in the fight against terrorism and extremism".

France did not initially announce the news, which was first revealed by Saudi press agency SPA.

Nayef is widely respected throughout the West for his efforts to combat violent extremism. He led a crackdown on Al-Qaeda which waged a campaign of shootings and bombings against foreigners and Saudi security personnel in the kingdom between 2003 and 2007.

France has sold billions of euros worth of weapons to Riyadh, and sees Saudi Arabia as crucial to intelligence sharing about jihadist groups.

But critics point out that Saudi Arabia has spent decades funding the spread of its hardline Wahhabist teachings across the world, which is widely seen as underpinning the very jihadist threat that France is trying to defeat.

Saudi Arabia is also seen as one of the world's worst human rights violators, and there was harsh criticism of Nayef's award on social media, particularly over its use of the death penalty, with people using the hashtag "#honte" (#shame) on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia on Sunday carried out its 70th execution so far this year, beheading a man convicted of murder.

On January 2, 47 were executed for "terrorism", including Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a driving force behind protests that began in 2011 among the kingdom's minority Shiites.