DAKAR, Senegal - French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday promised a major boost in foreign aid for education in developing nations, at a conference joined by megastar Rihanna that aimed at putting millions of children back in school.
Macron co-hosted the event organised by the Global Partnership for Education with Senegalese President Macky Sall, while Rihanna attended as the organisation's global ambassador.
The French leader told delegates that countries where the world had witnessed "democracy being rolled back", were also where "girls were being pushed out of school."
He promised 200 million euros (R2.9 billion) for the partnership's activities.
The pledge represents a massive increase on the 17 million euros pledged at the last conference in 2014. It brings France closer to Britain, which contributes $430 million, and the European Union, which gives $400 million.
Macron spoke with Rihanna on the sidelines of the event after she challenged him to contribute more to the project in a tweet on Thursday.
@rihanna It was at that moment that I should have been elected President of the French Republic. What a wonderful privilege to see you. But much remains to be done in the field of education. Let's stop talking. Long live the reine euh, "reihanna" de France ------ ! pic.twitter.com/Y3F6W0oB9m— Jerolyon (@Borussi72154545) February 2, 2018
It is not the first time the young French leader and the singer of "Umbrella" fame have met: she visited the Elysee Palace in July after tweeting him on the same issue.
The Dakar conference, which brings together governments and the private sector, aims to raise $3.1 billion (2.5 billion euros) over the coming three years to support education for 870 million children around the world.
The French presidency said the partnership was "well on the way" to reaching this goal on Friday afternoon.
Children's futures at stake
Some 264 million school-age children and youths are living without any education owing to poverty, conflict and social barriers including bias against girls, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef).
"This is one of the, if not the, largest gatherings of its kind to really demonstrate political will, financial investment, the urgency of the education crisis," Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education told AFP.
"We are here to raise money; we are here to build political will; we are here to draw attention to the urgency of the problem," she added.
Partner countries in the GPE scheme are required to earmark 20 percent of their national budgets to education -- a tough goal for developing nations battling jihadists or civil conflicts.
Literacy in sub-Saharan Africa hovers around 65 percent, according to UNESCO, the UN's culture and education agency, and girls lose out disproportionately.
"People feel education is not that important because you are not losing lives", Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore told AFP on Friday.
"But education must be seen with the same urgency," she added. Without it, "you lose a child's future".
Development and security
Ahead of the conference, Macron met Sall at the presidential palace in the Senegalese capital and signed agreements on the sale of two Airbus planes for $214 million (171 million euros) and the creation of a Franco-Senegalese university campus.
Senegalese police made several arrests on Friday afternoon when dispersing a protest march by "France Degage", a group which wants the former colonial power to reduce its role in Senegal.
Macron has visited Africa six times already in his nine months as president, spending time in several former French colonies and reaffirming support for the Barkhane counter-terror force rooting out jihadists across the Sahel region.
A rapid reaction force of Senegalese troops was recently deployed to Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping mission with France's blessing, as the international community attempts to contain Al-Qaeda-linked groups wreaking havoc in the unstable desert nation.
Macron will visit the northern Senegalese city of Saint Louis on Saturday, which is threatened by coastal erosion.
He will be accompanied by President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, which along with France is financing protective measures for the former capital of what was known until 1902 as French West Africa.