Macron and India: Why his visit mattered

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On 10 March, French President Emmanuel Macron landed in India for a four-day visit.

Coming off the heels of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s rather botched visit to India, this mission was seen as an opportunity for both France and India.

For Indian Prime Minister Nahendra Modi, it was perhaps seen as a chance to right the wrong impression that he might have made to foreign observers when Trudeau visited; for Macron, it was a chance to extend the hand of friendship to a growing economic and military power.

An auspicious visit

For President Macron, this visit could not have come at a better time. It has been almost a year since he was elected on a wave of hope and opportunism. Since then things have moved backwards and forwards for him, and his hopes of pushing forward in the Franco-German alliance in the EU have stalled numerous times.

Consequently, it was noticed by those in attendance at talks between Macron and Modi, that Macron continually talked about how France should be the gateway for Indian students, businesses and other professions into Europe.

Though there were no solid figures confirmed in regards to the number of students France would be willing to accept, the message appeared to resonate with Prime Minister Modi and his government, and caused a bit of concern for UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who rushed to respond to Macron by stating that Britain was still student friendly: “We are proud too to have more than 14,000 Indian students coming to the UK in 2017 – up a quarter over last year – choosing the home of the greatest universities, including four of the global top ten.”

Indeed, the words used by Macron seemed to suggest that, much like he is doing with businesses in regard to Brexit, he is trying to convince India that France, not Britain should be their go to.

Though it will take time to fully assess whether he was completely successful, on paper it would appear that in the short term, there has been a solid commitment from both France and India on issues such as climate change and energy maintenance. A commitment to the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and the opening of a nuclear power plant in Jaitapur, appear to be a further evidence of Macron’s ambition to take on the mantle as a global leader on climate change.

Modi and Macron also pledged to bring about cheaper solar energy prices and ensure greater commitment to spending for ISA financing, which is once more challenging the established geo-political power structure.

Repairing an international reputation

For Modi, the Macron visit also came at an opportune time. With the general election coming in a year’s time, it is crucial that Modi show that he has some sort of standing internationally.

In this respect, Modi has had a difficult time of late. Trudeau’s visit was seen as a disaster due to his extension of an invitation to Sikh extremist Jaspal Atwal to dinner at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi.

Atwal was sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in the attempted murder of an Indian politician. Sikh separatists believe in the idea of Khalistan, or a Sikh homeland, and the perception is that Trudeau did very little to distance himself from this movement.

macron trudeau modi
Justin Trudeau’s visit to India drew heavy criticism. Photo credit: Narendra Modi

With relations between India and the US looking increasingly strained, and with the US looking as though it might take an isolationist stance in the world, Modi needed this visit to show his people that he still had some friends in the international community.

With agreements over space observation, naval spaces and defence in the face of terrorism, it can be said that Modi achieved much during Macron’s visit. Indeed, with China increasingly looking to expand its own power within the Indian Ocean, the fourteen bilateral agreements signed between Modi and Macron include commitments to opening both countries naval bases to one another, showed a clear attempt to stymie Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

All talk, no action?

After Trudeau’s visit, it is safe to say that this was more of a success for both Modi and Macron. Not only did the visit reinforce an old relationship that had looked as if it might be falling into disuse, it also gained a significant ally for Modi.

With fourteen bilateral agreements signed between the two nations, focusing mainly on defence, a clear message has been sent that the Indian Ocean cannot be allowed to become the domain of only one nation.

Considering China’s increasing military presence within the region, this is not an insignificant deal, especially with France being a member of the UN Security Council and continuous supporter of India’s right to a position on said council. For the two individual leaders, how this visit impacts their own reputations within their home countries remains to be seen.

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