On the four-day India trip Macron is accompanied by top ministers, most of them women, including Defence Minister Florence Parly and Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The emphasis is on reinforcing the 20-year-old strategic partnership with India, and enhancing it with cultural, research and education exchanges.
Technology and ecology
Technology and the environment are also key subjects, with Macron due to cochair the inaugural meeting of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Minister for Higher Education and Research, Frédérique Vidal, is a member of the delegation, as are junior minister for ecological transition Brune Poirson and France’s special envoy for the International Solar Alliance’s operations, who was environment minister in the previous, Socialist government when the ISA initiative was launched at Cop21 in Paris in 2015, Ségolène Royal.
While trade is always a very big part of official visits, major contracts are unlikely to be signed this time.
Trade tripled in three years
A contract to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets has already been signed, and, even though the Indian Air Force is reportedly keen to have more as a deterrent to Pakistan, the details of another one have yet to be ironed out, and that can take years.
Trade between France and India has tripled in the past three years, Asia expert Jean-Joseph Boillot notes, but diplomacy is very important in the changing relationship between Paris and Delhi.
“The two countries are closer and closer on international issues like Syria, Iran and also China,” he says. “China will not be quoted in the official statements in this visit but on the Indian side every day in the Indian press you get worrying reports about Chinese gains to the north and south of India.
“So China has become very recently perceived as threat number one. Not that China is a threat for us [France] but it’s clear we have multipolar diplomacy and we are not very keen to see the two big superpowers playing alone. So we need a kind of alliance with countries like India to counterbalance the two big powers’ game.”
Solar alliance a highlight
The ISA summit on Sunday in New Delhi will be a highlight of the visit.
Modi launched the treaty at the 2015 Cop21 climate summit in Paris.
The ISA is an alliance of more than 122 countries lying between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, which aims to improve the harnessing, processing and distribution of solar energy.
At least 27 countries have ratified the treaty and 55 have signed the framework agreement.
Modi will host and he and Macron co-chair the inaugural summit of the ISA, the only international organisation headquartered in India. Some 20 heads of state and government and environment ministers are expected to attend.
Fiji, Ghana and the Seychelles are among the countries to be represented, as well as France and India, of course.
“Both countries have worked very hard to get enough countries to sign,” Boillot says. “It’s important for India and for France, as India has in the last two years clearly become the global leader in solar energy. Last week it launched the largest solar plant in the world. And, on the French side, I think we have very sophisticated technology that is not recognised, so it’s good for France also.”
Other issues to be addressed during the visit include:
- Sustainable development: One of the keystones of France’s bilateral interaction with India. Macron is to open a solar power plant built with French firm Engie Solar in Dada Kala village near Mirzapur, 60 kilometres from Varanasi.
- The CEO Forum: A Franco-Indian CEO Forum where India's business community and the French high-level business delegation travelling with the president will be able to meet and discuss, and maybe clinch a few deals.
- Politics: “In India things have changed a lot,” Boillot says. “Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 in a very strong position and the general election of 2019 is looming.” Modi’s ruling BJP has struck a tough Hindu-nationalist ideology and is facing economic problems, with growth weakening in the last three quarters. Macron is in a stronger position than his predecessor François Hollande when he visited in 2016," Boillot comments.
- Tourism: Macron and his wife, Brigitte, are to have a special tour of the Taj Mahal, India’s 17th-century Mughal pride and joy, which is seen as a declaration of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife, Mumtaz.