JAIPUR: President Emmanuel Macron was given a red carpet reception in India on Thursday with a welcome parade of elephants, as France eyes lucrative deals with the world’s fifth-largest economy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to host Macron for a banquet in a 19th-century maharaja’s palace on Thursday evening, and on Friday he will be the chief guest at a colourful military march-past with massed ranks of tanks, camel cavalry and a fighter jet fly-past.
India’s foreign ministry says New Delhi and Paris are “strategic partners”, while the French presidency says the trip will “consolidate and deepen diplomatic and economic relations”. Western democracies have concerns about human rights in India, their differences over the war in Ukraine and New Delhi’s close ties with Moscow—its key military supplier. But the United States and its European allies are courting India as a military and economic counterweight to China.
France hopes to build on its military contracts after the Indian defence ministry purchased French-made Rafale fighter jets and Scorpene-class submarines in multibillion-dollar deals. Macron—who, according to Indian media, is coming after US President Joe Biden was unable to take up an invite—is also hoping France can sell six EPR nuclear reactors.
With a red flower garland around his neck, Macron shook hands with cheering schoolchildren waving flags of both nations after landing in Jaipur, in Rajasthan state. “We want to have more Indian students in France,” he said.
‘Peace and security’
Modi was guest of honour at France’s annual Bastille Day celebrations last July, and Macron is to receive a similar welcome. Paris and New Delhi collaborate on space and satellite technology, and the French delegation includes astronaut Thomas Pesquet. The visit included a stop at Jaipur’s 18th-century Jantar Mantar astronomical observation site.
On Friday, Macron will watch a military parade in New Delhi for Republic Day, the 75th anniversary of India’s constitution. Just as Indian soldiers marched down the streets of Paris in 2023, a French contingent will join the military spectacle, as French-built jets roar overhead.
India is “a key partner in contributing to international peace and security”, the French presidency said ahead of the visit. Last year, Macron visited neighbouring Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and also took a Pacific trip aimed at “recommitting” France to the wider Asia-Pacific region. The French president was last in India for the G20 summit in September.
‘No taboo subjects’
Rights issues will also be discussed. Journalists, activists and religious minorities have complained of harassment since Modi’s Hindu nationalist government took power in 2014, with accusations of rising religious intolerance towards the country’s Muslim minority.
Modi’s government has been accused of stifling independent media, with India falling 21 places to 161 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index since Modi took office a decade ago. French journalist Vanessa Dougnac was told this month that she is facing expulsion after more than two decades in India for what authorities have termed “malicious and critical” reporting.
The visit also comes days after Modi opened a Hindu temple, built on grounds where a mosque stood for centuries before it was torn down in 1992 by Hindu zealots incited by members of his party. Modi said the temple heralded a “new era” for India after a ceremony that embodied the triumph of his muscular Hindu nationalist politics, galvanising loyalists ahead of elections this year.
Macron is slated to visit a Muslim Sufi shrine in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin West neighbourhood during his visit. “There are no taboo subjects”, a French presidential adviser said ahead of the trip. “But the goal is to discuss them with respect and with the aim of achieving concrete results”. — AFP