French foreign minister meets pupils at Abu Dhabi's Lycée Louis Massignon

Jean-Yves Le Drian is on a two day visit of the capital

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France's foreign minister met cheering children at Abu Dhabi's oldest French-speaking school on a visit to the capital on Monday.

Jean-Yves Le Drian was at the Louis Massignon school to open a 300,000 square metre extension of the facility in the Al Saadah area.

The extension does not increase the capacity in terms of pupil numbers but substantially expands the amount of outdoor space available.

“I'm delighted to be returning to the Louis Massingon School," said Mr Le Drian, at the school on Monday. "France and the UAE have an exceptional relationship."

Mr Drian has a packed itinerary and the one-night visit also saw the UAE and France launch a partnership for "sustainable development" including the fight against climate change. But the school visit was one of the most colourful of his engagements.

Louis Massignon school is one of seven across the UAE that are controlled by the French foreign ministry catering to thousands of pupils. Unlike many private British or Indian curriculum schools, they are directly managed by an agency of the French government.

“It is an honour and a privilege for me to have a minister coming to the school,” said principal Gilles Lasserrade.

“Because it shows the interest he has in education and how important it is for the future. I feel proud.”

When Louis Massignon - named after the French scholar of Islam - opened in a small house on the Corniche in 1972, the UAE was barely a year old. The school catered chiefly to children from the French oil company, Total, who were involved in early exploration here. Children of diplomats also attended.

“[The heritage] is very important,” said Mr Lasserrade, who has been principal for three years. “It gives us legitimacy when French parents come to Abu Dhabi. They feel this historical school is a guarantee of [what they would] find in France. What you get here you would get in any French school.”

By 1980, it had moved to its current location and today more than 1,760 pupils from primary to secondary study there. There are about 330 staff including 240 teachers. The number of pupils has increased this year after a dip in recent years, largely due to job losses and families returning home, school administrators said.

There are 496 of these schools across the globe catering for 355,000 pupils and the French government wants to double their numbers by 2030 as part of a soft power initiative.

“All students who go through this system are particularly successful at university whether in America or England,” said Mr Lasserrade.

Mr Le Drian leaves on Monday night. He is also expected to give a major speech on regional issues at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi at 4pm and visit Louvre Abu Dhabi to inaugurate the new exhibition - 10,000 Years of Luxury, which showcases 350 objects that symbolise the history of fashion, jewellery , art and design - including the oldest natural pearl ever found that was unearthed in Abu Dhabi last year.

His trip is another part of the flowering of relations between France and the UAE over the past few years. Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening in 2017 was a major part of this but ties across commerce and culture have been growing significantly over the past few years. The UAE Ministry of Education has also reintroduced French to some public schools.