Modi, Macron put Ukraine rift aside to take Indo-French ties to next level

Modi, Macron put Ukraine rift aside to take Indo-French ties to next level

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi becomes the first world leader to have a face-to-face meeting with his frequently cited “friend” Emmanuel Macron following the French president’s re-election victory. While India, unlike France, still refuses to publicly condemn Russia over the Ukraine war, the two leaders share plenty of common ground.

When Emmanuel Macron won the April 2022 French presidential race, beating his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could barely contain his joy. 

“Congratulations to my friend @EmmanuelMacron on being re-elected,” began Modi’s Twitter felicitations. “I look forward to continue working together to deepen the India-French Strategic Partnership.” 

Barely a week later, the Indian leader was at it again, hailing his “friend” in a post announcing his visit Wednesday to France, his last stop on a three-day, three-nation European tour.  “In Paris I will be meeting my friend, President @Emmanuel Macron, who has just been re-elected,” he tweeted. “During our talks we will take stock of various bilateral and global issues.” 

Modi’s Paris visit follows a trip to Germany, where he held talks with Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday. The Berlin visit ended with a series of bilateral agreements that will see India receiving 10 billion euros in German aid by 2030 to boost the use of clean energy. 

But if the German press and public were expecting an accounting for the bilateral largesse, they were to be disappointed. Breaking with chancellery norms, reporters were not permitted to ask questions after the two leaders read out their statements. Modi has not held a single press conference in India since becoming prime minister in 2014 and the decision to skip questions was taken at the insistence of the Indian delegation, according to German officials.

Journalists were instead provided a 19-page joint declaration that displayed a pattern India has adopted and repeated since the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Germany “reaffirmed” its “utter condemnation” of the invasion, India steered clear of upbraiding Russia for attacking Ukraine. Modi instead repeated his mantra of ceasefire and talks as “the only way to resolve” the Ukraine crisis. 

India’s neutrality has come under repeated scrutiny as it abstains, time and again, on UN votes condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine. The most recent, an April 7 abstention on a UN General Assembly vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, left the international community wondering where the world’s largest democracy stands on fundamental rights and rule of law issues. On the other hand, India’s position has earned praise from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who lauded India during his visit last month for judging “the situation in its entirety, not just in a one-sided way”. 

Friends of big business  

Lavrov’s April 1 visit to New Delhi may have raised eyebrows in Western capitals, but his comment on India not having a “one-sided” foreign policy position was taken with a pinch of salt since the Modi administration has singularly placed self-interest above all in the Ukraine crisis.  

On the international stage, New Delhi may be a vocal proponent of a non-aligned, multipolar world order, but its dependence on Russian arms belies its standing as an independent Global South leader.   

Russia is a key arms supplier to India, accounting for nearly 80 percent of New Delhi’s existing weapons systems, which entails a dependence on Moscow for maintenance and spares. India is the world’s largest arms importer, accounting for 11 percent of global arms imports in 2017-2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).  

In recent years, the Modi administration has attempted to diversify its procurements, with France looking to supplant Russia’s dominant position in New Delhi’s arms bazaar. 

French arms exports to India increased “more than tenfold, making it India’s second-largest arms supplier in 2017- 2021″, according to SIPRI.

French arms exports to India include Rafale fighter jets, Mirage combat aircraft and Scorpene submarines while bilateral trade between the two countries practically doubled in a span of ten years, touching the €12-billion- mark before the pandemic.

With the increasing international pressure on Russian imports, including the inconvenience of payments due to sanctions, the Modi-Macron friendship fits the “friend in need, friend indeed” bill. 

“What interests Modi is big business. The friend of big business in France is Macron,” said Jean-Joseph Boillot from the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS). “Modi and Macron have identical interests and so they call themselves friends. They’re interest friends.” 

‘Stick it to the US’ multipolarity  

India and France also share a longstanding call for a multipolar world order, a discourse that often translates more as a statement of intent than a workable action plan during crises that require major, or superpower, might. 

The roots of the multipolar discourse runs deep in both countries, dating back to the postwar era.  

India, under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of primarily postcolonial nations that refused to be officially aligned with either the US or the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War, NAM has struggled for relevance, keeping up criticisms of US foreign policy while Russia was granted observer status last year. 

France’s multipolar goal, on the other hand, was born out of the loss of its colonial empire during the Charles de Gaulle presidency, when Paris determined it would not follow Britain in becoming what it believed was a US vassal state. The position though has been difficult to maintain, resulting in occasional eruptions such de Gaulle’s temporary pulling out of NATO command only to get back into the Western military alliance fold.  

“India and France are not big powers, they’re middle kingdoms surrounded by big powers, which are now the US and China,” explained Boillot. “When it comes to multipolarity, India and France have exactly the same line since the beginning. In France, it comes from de Gaulle’s diplomacy a long time ago. In India’s case, it’s exactly Nehru’s doctrine.” 

A prickly anti-US suspicion, which translates into Russia-soft planks, characterises nationalist positions in both countries. In France, Macron’s 2022 presidential challenger Le Pen – whose party is still paying back Russian bank loans – called for a NATO-Russia reconciliation and reduced French reliance on the alliance during the campaign trail.  

Le Pen’s right-wing isolationism in large part accounted for Modi’s relief last month over Macron’s re-election. But in India, the Hindu hard-right has been in power since Modi’s 2014 election victory, overseeing the implementation of the sort of Islamophobic, anti-Muslim discrimination that Le Pen can barely promise, which the French electorate routinely rejects at the polls. 

A “stick it to the US” position also delights India’s leftists, making a non-aligned compromise over Russian aggression palatable to both, the Hindu right and secular left in an otherwise divided nation. 

Indian foreign policy experts say this common multipolar plank provides a basis of Indo-French mutual understanding. “I personally think there are only two major leaders today who can pick up the phone and talk to Putin – apart from the Chinese leader of course. The two leaders are Emmanuel Macron of France, who has spent hours talking to Putin, and the Indian leader who has met Putin umpteen number of times. My personal view is that when discussions happen between Emmanuel Macron and Narendra Modi, they should discuss, howsoever tentatively, a plan to bring this horrific war in Ukraine to an end,” said Mohan Kumar, former Indian ambassador to France and current chairman of the New Delhi-based Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS).

Indo-Pacific priorities 

But Putin so far has shown no inclination to heed the advice of either Macron or Modi. What’s more, the Kremlin has been moving closer to China, a prospect that alarms both India and France. 

While India wishes to be viewed as an emerging power on the world stage that deserves a spot in international elite clubs – including a UN Security Council permanent seat – New Delhi’s interests, in reality, are exclusively regional.  

Since the 1960s break between the Soviet Union and China, New Delhi has historically looked to Moscow to contain Beijing’s expansionism in its Asian backyard. The stakes are high for India since it has a contested 2,500 kilometre border with China that has sparked a devastating war and occasional deadly skirmishes.

But the Ukraine crisis has sparked tectonic geopolitical shifts. This includes a changing balance of power between Moscow and Beijing, making an increasingly sanctioned and sidelined Russia dependent on an emergent China – to India’s disadvantage. 

France also views Chinese expansionism with trepidation, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, a “priority” region for Paris.  France is present in the region via its overseas territories and 93 percent of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The Indo-Pacific is also home to 1.5 million French people, as well as 8,000 soldiers stationed in the region, according to the French foreign ministry. 

A “stable multipolar order” is at the heart of French policy in the Indo-Pacific. This includes strategic partnerships with Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, “on the basis of shared values and interests”, according to a French foreign ministry statement.

With so many common interests at stake, Modi can count on his friend Macron to understand New Delhi’s position on Ukraine, even if the French president is personally unhappy with India’s fence-sitting. “Modi will ask Paris not to press India to join the Western bloc,” explained Boillot. “On the other hand, Modi will also ask Paris to be more present in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad [a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US] is too American. India’s classic position is the US is not a reliable partner.” Which makes plenty of room for a friend in need. 

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Author: Shirley