Emmanuel Macron guest of honour at Republic Day in India after Joe Biden’s faux pas: an impromptu opportunity to reaffirm the Franco-Indian strategic partnership

9 janvier 2024

Every year, India organises an imposing military parade on 26 January to mark Republic Day, commemorating the entry into force of the Constitution on 26 January 1950, three years after independence. Traditionally and from the outset, a guest of honour, placed next to the Indian Prime Minister, has attended the parade. This invitation underlines the close ties with India of the country he represents.

On 8 September, on the sidelines of the G20 summit held in Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Joe Biden to join him on 26 January 2024. The Indian press even suggested that the other members of the Quad (Australia and Japan) might also be on the podium before the formal summit to discuss security issues in the Indo-Pacific. The rumour of an invitation was made official on September 20 by the US ambassador to New Delhi, Eric Garcetti, a close associate of Joe Biden. The last time an American president stood alongside Narendra Modi on the great Rajpath Avenue (« Avenue of the King », since renamed Kartavya Path, « Avenue of Duty » in the name of Indian authenticity), it was in 2015 and it was Barack Obama. The visit did not leave the Indian Prime Minister with fond memories, as Barack Obama took the liberty of warning his host against discrimination against religious minorities.

After his successful visit to Washington last June, during which the entire Biden administration was extremely kind to him, Narendra Modi had high hopes of the American President’s presence at the start of an election year in which his party, the Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP), is seeking a third five-year term. By appearing with Joe Biden, Narendra Modi intended to confirm India’s primacy in the new international balance of power, following the success of India’s presidency of the G20 in 2023.

But as the days went by, there was no confirmation from Washington, until on 12 December the Indian press reported that, « for scheduling reasons », it was « unlikely » that the American President would be able to honour the invitation. Admittedly, Joe Biden, who is also pre-campaigning for the November 2024 elections, busy with the war in Gaza and Ukraine, and threatened with impeachment by Congress, has plenty of arguments to put forward to justify his absence. But that’s not the whole story: at the end of November, the US Department of Justice issued an indictment against an Indian national arrested in Prague, accused of attempting to assassinate an American citizen of Indian origin who was very active in Sikh separatist circles and considered a terrorist by Indian intelligence. Worse still, the indictment states that he organised the assassination at the request of an unnamed Indian intelligence agent whose identity is known to the FBI.

India is not reacting to these very specific accusations with the anger and vivacity that greeted such accusations from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the (successful) assassination of a Canadian Sikh, also considered a terrorist by the Indian authorities last June. Even if Washington and New Delhi reaffirm their desire to preserve their good relations, the fact that Joe Biden chose to decline the invitation in such a cavalier manner leaves Indian analysts perplexed: does it mean that for the American President, the head of the Indian government has become « toxic » to the point of refusing to appear alongside him?

Be that as it may, India has a more immediate concern: finding a replacement for him at short notice after this faux pas, just over a month before the event. In little more than a week, the name of the replacement was known: it would be French President Emmanuel Macron.

In fact, this is anything but a surprise. In 2023, apart from the G20 summit in New Delhi, which was organised with great fanfare, the two key diplomatic events for India were Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in June and to Paris in July. Both visits were successful from India’s point of view. Narendra Modi was particularly pleased with his visit to France, where he was guest of honour at the 14 July parade on the Champs Élysées. It is only natural that he should return the invitation, especially as his « dear friend » Emmanuel Macron has never had this honour, unlike every other French president since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, even those who have only served one term. In total, six French presidents have been guests of honour on Republic Day (Jacques Chirac has even been twice, once as prime minister in 1976 and again as president in 1998). That’s more than any other foreign nation.

France already has a strategic partnership with India, but it’s not the only one. What is most important is that India is increasingly insisting, both publicly and privately, on the strategic nature of its relationship with France. On a previous visit in 2018, Emmanuel Macron opened France’s Indian Ocean ports and its Djibouti base to the Indian Navy. The delivery of 36 Rafale jets and Scorpene-class submarines has also seen the relationship cemented, and during his visit to France in July, Narendra Modi confirmed India’s interest in buying 26 Rafale-Ms for its new aircraft carrier and three more Scorpene submarines. In fact, a few days before the invitation to the French President was announced, France informed India of the price it was asking for these purchases, enabling negotiations to move forward.

Finally, France offers the Indian government an obvious advantage: unlike the US administration, President Macron carefully refrains from any public criticism or comment on the issue of human rights or the treatment of religious minorities in India.

For both leaders, Emmanuel Macron’s presence alongside Narendra Modi on 26 January is a win-win situation. For their countries, it is a reaffirmation of a strong strategic link, particularly in the area of Indo-Pacific security, at a time when, in the wake of the war in Gaza, the safety of shipping has been compromised in the Bab el-Mandeb strait linking the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and a cargo ship has just been the target of a drone attack off the coast of Gujarat. For Emmanuel Macron, it is an opportunity to highlight an undeniable diplomatic success, at a time when his policy in Africa and the Middle East is frequently criticised. For Narendra Modi, it is a way of reminding the United States of India’s strategic autonomy and that good relations with Washington are not synonymous with alignment or subservience.
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