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India’s promise as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific led French President Emmanuel Macron to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi as guest of honour at the July 14 Bastille Day military parade. But does India have the will and means to deliver?

Issued on: 13/07/2023 – 07:28Modified: 13/07/2023 – 14:32

8 min

Indian soldiers march during a rehearsal for the Bastille Day parade in Paris, France on July 10, 2023.
Indian soldiers march during a rehearsal for the Bastille Day parade in Paris, France on July 10, 2023. © Christophe Ena, AP

Text by:Leela JACINTOFollow

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Less than a year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron did not mince his words at the UN General Assembly when he slammed countries sitting on the fence about the Ukraine war, accusing them of “complicity” in Russia’s “new imperialism”.

“Those who are silent today are serving — whether against their will or secretly with a certain complicity — the cause of a new imperialism,” Macron said. “It is not a matter of choosing one side between East and West, or North or South. It’s a matter of responsibility” to the UN Charter, he added.

The Ukraine war has exposed rifts between the West and several Asian and African countries that see themselves as part of the “Global South”. While the West has roundly condemned the Russian aggression on Ukraine, several Global South nations have adopted a position of studied neutrality.

Read moreUkraine war exposes splits between Global North and South

The list of speakers at the 2022 UN General Assembly included Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country abstained five times from condemning the invasion at the UN, including a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution demanding an independent inquiry on Russian violations in Ukraine.

Modi did get a mention in Macron’s speech. But it was not to chastise the Indian leader for New Delhi’s neutrality in the Ukraine war, nor its increased imports of cheap Russian oil under price caps imposed by global sanctions. Instead, the French leader praised his Indian counterpart for telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that, “today’s era is not a time for war” at a summit in Uzbekistan.

Macron’s soft spot for Modi will be on grand display on Friday, when the Indian prime minister attends the July 14 Bastille Day military parade in Paris as a guest of honour. The traditional military march on the Champs-Élysées will be followed by an untraditional “special dinner” for the visiting Indian prime minister in the magnificent Louvre, the world’s most visited museum. 

Despite India’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Macron has proved to be exceptionally willing to forgive Modi, a man he frequently addresses as “my friend”.

It’s a friendship rooted in deep economic and geostrategic interests. The red-carpet treatment at the Bastille Day festivities is an acknowledgment of the ties that bind Paris and New Delhi.

Defence deals and bilateral trade strengthen the relationship between the two countries, with big ticket weapon purchases and record commercial aviation contracts grabbing international headlines.

India and France are also historically committed to a multipolar world order, the two countries traditionally balancing their relations with Washington DC and Moscow. The rise of China and its expanding ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, a strategic region for both countries, also sees a convergence of geopolitical interests between Paris and New Delhi.

But as Macron’s “with us or against us” speech at the UN displays, India and France have different interests in a world increasingly polarised by the Ukraine war. Beyond the official communiques and joint statements, those fundamental differences are raising questions in international policy circles.

Friend through ‘thick and thin’ 

Modi’s invitation to the Bastille Day military parade marks the 25th anniversary of the France-India Strategic Partnership, notes a joint statement on the Elysée presidential palace website.

The France-India Strategic Partnership is not a household term in either country, but it’s a perennial on bilateral communiques.

Launched in 1998, the partnership lies at the root of a commonly-held view in New Delhi circles that France is India’s friend through “thick and thin”.

A quarter-century ago, India was slapped with US sanctions for conducting nuclear tests in its western Pokhran desert region. They led India’s arch foe Pakistan to conduct similar tests, sparking nuclear escalation fears in South Asia.

File photo released by the Indian government in May 1998 shows the site of an underground nuclear test in the Pokhran region in western India.

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