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France seeks to calm Bahrain after rights criticism

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France seeks to calm Bahrain after rights criticism

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PARIS (Reuters) - France sought to assuage Bahrain on Friday after rare criticism by its ambassador to the kingdom over human rights and an honorary citizenship by Paris of a rights campaigner sparked anger in Manama, three sources said.

France, one of the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, has close ties with Gulf Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and rarely publicly criticises internal political issues.

However, French ambassador Cecile Longe tweeted on June 7 that Paris was deeply concerned by the "treatment of human rights defenders and political opponents in the country" and specifically criticised the confirmation of a five-year prison sentence for opposition member Nabeel Rajab.

Rajab was sentenced to five years in prison in February for criticising a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and accusing Bahrain’s prison authorities of torture.

Longe's tweets were followed by a decision on Monday by Paris town hall to make the activist an honorary citizen of the French capital.

"The Bahrainis went apoplectic after this because the symbolism of it was a step too far," said one source aware of the matter.

A Bahraini emissary was dispatched to Paris on Friday to underscore Manama's disapproval over the issue, two diplomatic sources said.

The sources said the decision had pushed the Bahrainis to look to call off the king's official visit to Paris, which had been due at the end of June.

One of the two diplomats said Manama had informed Paris that the visit, which had never been officially announced, could not go ahead due to a death in the royal family.

The French presidency declined to comment. France's foreign ministry said it stood by the ambassador's tweets. Bahrain's embassy in Paris did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by John Irish; Additional reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Peter Graff)

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