Courtesy: Dawn News/AFP
President Emmanuel Macron was given a red carpet welcome and an elephant honour guard on Thursday as he started a two-day visit to India, with France eyeing lucrative deals with the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Landing in Jaipur, state capital of Rajasthan, Macron will be hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a banquet in a 19th-century maharaja’s palace.
On Friday, he will be the chief guest in New Delhi at a colourful military march-past with massed ranks of tanks, dancing troupes, 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”.
Despite concerns over human rights, differences over the war in Ukraine and Delhi’s close ties with Moscow — India’s key military supplier — the US and its European allies are courting New Delhi 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.
‘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.
The French president was last in India for the G20 summit in September. Paris and New Delhi collaborate on space and satellite technology, and the French delegation includes astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
The visit includes a stop at Jaipur’s 18th-century Jantar Mantar astronomical observation site, before dinner with Modi at the Rambagh Palace, a luxury hotel.
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.
‘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 rights group Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index since he 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 and galvanising loyalists ahead of elections later this year.
Macron is slated to visit a Muslim Sufi shrine in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin West neighbourhood during his visit.
A Sikh group in Britain also called on Macron to skip the parade “or raise concerns directly” with Modi after the alleged targeting of Sikh separatists abroad, an issue that sparked a major diplomatic row with Canada last year.
“There are no taboo subjects,” a French presidential adviser said ahead of the visit. “But the goal is to discuss them with respect and with the aim of achieving concrete results”.