PM Modi's Bastille Day visit stirs controversy in France. Here's WHY?

Friday, 14 July 2023 (11:23 IST)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting France to attend the country's annual July 14 Bastille Day national festival as guest of honor.
The visit comes at a significant moment, as the two countries celebrate 25 years of their strategic partnership marked by civil nuclear, space and defense cooperation.
In recent years, the partnership has expanded to areas such as energy and countering cyberterrorism. The office of French President Emmanuel Macron has said Modi's presence and the participation of Indian forces in the Bastille Day parade would mark a "new phase in the strategic relationship."
"India and France have consistently been strong partners. It's a historical relationship that stretches back decades, precedes Modi and is much deeper than just business ties," said Jean-Luc Racine, senior fellow at the Center for South Asian Studies in Paris. "It has a hugely important defense and security dimension."
That refers to deepening naval and security cooperation between Paris and New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific, where France has a string of islands and a vast maritime exclusive economic zone. The relationship is mainly driven by shared concerns about China's rising influence in the region.
France is also India's second-largest weapons supplier after Russia, and the war in Ukraine has prompted New Delhi to accelerate its efforts to diversify its sources of military gear away from Moscow.
Reports suggest Modi's visit could see the two countries announce new deals for the naval version of French Rafale fighter jets, which are tailored for use on aircraft carriers, and three Scorpene-class submarines.
'Inevitable nature' of India-France ties
Some analysts point out that the global context of Modi's visit to France is just as important.
India is chairing the Group of 20 (G20) — a club of the world's leading advanced and emerging economies — this year and Modi, who has deftly balanced ties with both the West and Russia, is courted by all sides despite not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and boosting oil imports from Moscow.
In many ways, France sees India as the perfect ally to bridge the divisions revealed and amplified by the Russian military aggression.
In a briefing this week, the Elysee Palace spoke of the "inevitable nature" of the partnership with India, which it said is now the world's fifth-largest economy and France's second-largest economic partner in Asia.
"There's a high degree of trust and comfort level between India and France and ideological convergences. Both countries highly value an independent line of action and thinking," Harsh Pant, from the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told DW.
"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.
Modi's government has been accused of stifling the media, with India slipping 11 places to 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index released by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders in May.
In the same month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended for the fourth year in a row that India's government be added to a religious freedom blacklist.
"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'
Criticism of India is rare in France, which doesn't have a sizeable Indian diaspora. But, on a recent afternoon, a small group of people prepared posters in a basement in Paris, saying "Not Today Mr. Modi! Bastille Day is the day of freedom" and "No to Modi's extreme right agenda."
They planned to hold a protest in central Paris on the eve of Modi's appearance at the military parade on Thursday.
"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."
The head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, however, dismissed concerns about India's democratic backsliding when asked about the invitation to Modi in the French parliament last month.
"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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