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Controversy Ignited in France by Modi’s Visit on Bastille Day

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has been invited as the guest of honor during France’s national festival. This visit holds special significance as both countries commemorate 25 years of their strategic partnership, characterized by cooperation in civil nuclear energy, space exploration, defense, and other domains.

Over the years, the partnership has expanded to encompass vital areas such as energy collaboration and joint efforts in countering cyberterrorism. The office of French President Emmanuel Macron has emphasized that Modi’s presence and the participation of Indian forces in the Bastille Day parade will mark a “new phase in the strategic relationship” between India and France.

The historical ties between India and France transcend mere business connections and have deep roots that precede Modi’s tenure. According to Jean-Luc Racine, a senior fellow at the Center for South Asian Studies in Paris, the relationship has a profoundly important defense and security dimension.

This dimension is particularly evident in the growing naval and security cooperation between Paris and New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific region. France’s possession of a string of islands and a vast maritime exclusive economic zone, combined with shared concerns about China’s expanding influence, have driven the collaboration in this strategic area.

Furthermore, France holds the distinction of being India’s second-largest weapons supplier after Russia. Given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, India has accelerated its efforts to diversify its sources of military equipment away from Moscow. Reports indicate that Modi’s visit may lead to the announcement of new deals, including the procurement of the naval version of the French Rafale fighter jets, specifically designed for aircraft carriers, as well as three Scorpene-class submarines.

The visit of Prime Minister Modi to France symbolizes the deepening of the strategic partnership between the two nations and underscores their commitment to mutual cooperation across various sectors.

‘Inevitable nature’ of India-France ties

Analysts highlight the global significance of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to France. As India chairs the Group of 20 (G20) this year, Modi’s adeptness in balancing ties with Western nations and Russia has garnered attention. Despite refraining from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increasing oil imports from Moscow, Modi remains sought after by various sides.

France views India as a crucial partner in bridging the divisions exacerbated by Russian military aggression. The Elysee Palace emphasized the “inevitable nature” of the partnership with India, considering it the world’s fifth-largest economy and France’s second-largest economic partner in Asia.

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The partnership between India and France is underpinned by a high level of trust, a shared comfort level, and ideological convergence. Both countries prioritize independent action and thinking. Harsh Pant, an expert from the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, highlighted these aspects of the relationship.

“The way India has positioned itself, its diplomacy and its global outreach, there is a sense that India represents a large number of countries whose voices are not being heard on existential issues like rising, food, fertilizer and energy prices as a result of the war,” he said.

“India could help France and the West to reach out to a large part of the world where there is a seeming disconnect right now.”

Why some criticize Macron’s move to invite Modi

But not everyone in France is welcoming Modi with open arms.

“India is a friend. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi is far right and violently hostile to Muslims in his country,” Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the opposition radical left France Unbowed Party, tweeted last month.

“He is not welcome on July 14, a festival of liberty, equality, fraternity that he disdains.”

The head of the Green Party, Marine Tondelier, said the choice of Modi as guest of honor was a “grave political error” by Macron.

“It has to be reminded that since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, India, which is usually called the largest democracy in the world, has kept regressing when it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Tondelier wrote in an article in French newspaper Liberation.

Critics have accused the Modi government of suppressing media freedom, leading to a significant decline in India’s press freedom ranking. According to the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, India slipped 11 places to 161 out of 180 countries.

In May, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also recommended, for the fourth consecutive year, that India’s government be included in a religious freedom blacklist. These developments have raised concerns about the state of media freedom and religious tolerance in the country.

“It’s either totally ignorant of the internal political context of India or totally cynical to invite Mr. Modi as guest of honor of the Republic of France on the occasion of the most symbolic day of the year,” Tondelier wrote.

‘Inviting Modi sends a wrong message’

While criticism of India is relatively uncommon in France, a small group of individuals in Paris is taking a stand against Prime Minister Modi. In a basement, they created posters with messages such as “Not Today Mr. Modi! Bastille Day is the day of freedom” and “No to Modi’s extreme right agenda.”

Their intention is to organize a protest in central Paris on the eve of Modi’s participation in the military parade on Thursday. This demonstration reflects the divergent opinions surrounding Modi’s visit and highlights the presence of dissenting voices in France regarding his policies.

“Bastille Day represents a certain ethos and values that are under attack in India,” Shailendra, a Paris resident, told DW. “Inviting Modi sends a wrong message.”

During a discussion in the French parliament last month, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, the head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, dismissed concerns regarding India’s democratic backsliding when asked about the invitation extended to Prime Minister Modi. Bourlanges seemingly downplayed or disagreed with the notion that India’s democratic situation warranted significant concern or criticism.

“India is certainly an imperfect democracy. But it’s a democracy that’s an absolute model if you compare it to Russia or to China or to many countries in Africa,” he said.

Some, however, think France should tread a fine line in calling out rights violations by allies like India while continuing to work with it.

“Of course, you can’t conflate India and China when it comes to human rights abuses,” Balveer Arora, former rector and pro-vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, told DW.

“The big difference is that liberties don’t exist at all in China. Here in India, they exist and are being trampled upon,” he said. “That’s the tragedy and why countries like France should care.”

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