By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) -Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was treated to one of France’s most spectacular accolades on Friday as guest of honour at the Bastille Day military parade, part of a visit that has sealed high-profile defence deals.
Modi and President Emmanuel Macron watched French and Indian soldiers march down the tree-lined Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, while French-made Rafale fighter jets India bought in 2015 took part in a fly-past over the Arc de Triomphe.
The national celebrations come at a delicate time for Macron, who was also booed by some members of the public as he drove down the Champs-Elysees in a military car.
His decision to raise the retirement age sparked months of protests this spring and has hurt his popularity ratings.
Modi began a two-day visit to Paris on Thursday, when he was granted the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award.
“(India) is a giant in the history of the world which will have a determining role in our future,” Macron said in a speech late on Thursday. “It is also a strategic partner and a friend.”
The parade comes after New Delhi gave initial approval to buy an extra 26 Rafale jets for its navy and three Scorpene class submarines, deepening defence ties with Paris at a time the two nations are seeking allies in the Indo-Pacific.
The total value of the purchases is expected to be around 800 billion rupees ($9.75 billion), according to a source familiar with the details, although that was still subject to negotiations.
France has been one of India’s closest partners in Europe for decades. It was the only Western nation not to impose sanctions on New Delhi after India conducted nuclear tests in 1998.
India has relied on French fighter jets for four decades now. Before buying Dassault Aviation’s Rafale, India bought Mirage jets in 1980s and those still comprise two squadrons of the air force.
The ageing fleet of India’s Russian-made planes, Moscow’s inability to perform maintenance work, and delays in India’s indigenous manufacturing plans have led to the two new defence deals.
Later on Friday, Macron will host Modi at the Elysee Palace for talks before a state banquet at the Louvre Museum.
But Modi’s visit was also criticised by human rights organisations, concerned about the perceived growing authoritarian nature of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and accusations of discrimination against minorities.
“Today, Emmanuel Macron rolls out the red carpet for Narendra Modi,” the French Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) rights group said on Twitter. “The LDH, concerned about India’s authoritarian turn, denounces this invitation which sends a disastrous signal, negating our democratic values.”
For France, the strategic partnership with India is crucial as it seeks to consolidate its alliance network in the Indo-Pacific region after being dealt a blow by Australia when Canberra decided to ditch a big French submarine contract and form the AUKUS alliance with Britain and the United States.
Both India and France through its island territories have deep interests in the Indian Ocean and are concerned about China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
Macron has treated only a few global leaders to the Bastille Day military parade.
He invited Donald Trump for the 2017 celebrations, and the then U.S. president was so impressed by the French march-past that he asked Pentagon officials to explore a similar parade in celebration of American troops.
(Reporting by Michel RoseEditing by Frances Kerry and Nick Macfie)
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