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India fetes France's Macron at annual military parade

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and France's President Emmanuel Macron embrace during a visit in Jaipur, India (Ludovic MARIN)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and France's President Emmanuel Macron embrace during a visit in Jaipur, India (Ludovic MARIN)

President Emmanuel Macron was guest of honour Friday for India's pomp-filled annual military parade, in a state visit aimed at bolstering France's strategic ties with the world's fifth-largest economy.

The annual Republic Day event in the heart of New Delhi is a highly choreographed spectacle featuring tank columns, fighter jet fly-pasts, acrobatic motorbike stunts and mounted camel units.

This year it coincides with a two-day diplomatic tour that reflects a growing partnership between India and France, after Macron hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi at last year's Bastille Day celebrations in Paris.

Macron has pushed for greater French involvement in the Asia-Pacific at a time when Washington and its Western allies are courting India as a military and economic counterweight to China.

Before his arrival in India, Macron's office said India was "a key partner in contributing to international peace and security".

France also hopes to build on its military contracts with India, which is already a buyer of French-made Rafale fighter jets and Scorpene-class submarines in multibillion-dollar deals.

India in turn has been working to modernise its armed forces and has solicited French help to grow its indigenous defence industry, allowing it to diversify arms purchases beyond its traditional supplier Russia.

"The idea is to build defence supply chains that can meet India and France's defence needs," New Delhi's top foreign ministry bureaucrat Vinay Kwatra told reporters.

Kwatra said both countries were exploring joint satellite launches.

But he also indicated that no deal had been reached on additional Rafale jet purchases by the Indian navy, nor had there been movement on a long-standing cooperation agreement on civil nuclear energy production in India.

A contingent of French soldiers including a Foreign Legion marching band joined the parade, which marks the adoption of India's constitution in 1950.

Indian troops had marched down the Champs-Elysees under Modi's watch during last year's Bastille Day parade.

- 'No taboo subjects' -

Macron was welcomed in India on Thursday with a parade of elephants and a banquet hosted by Modi -- who greeted the French leader with his customary bear hug -- at an ornate hilltop maharaja's palace in the city of Jaipur.

India's economy and its huge market have helped the Modi government sidestep questions around its human rights record at home, differences over the war in Ukraine and its traditional ties with Russia.

Modi's government has been accused of stifling independent media, with India falling 21 places to 161 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index since Modi took office a decade ago.

French journalist Vanessa Dougnac was told this month that she is facing expulsion after more than two decades in India for what authorities have termed "malicious and critical" reporting.

"The matter is being dealt with by the relevant department," Kwatra said. "This has been brought to our attention by the French side both prior (to) and during the visit."

The visit also comes days after Modi opened a Hindu temple, built on grounds where a mosque stood for centuries before it was torn down in 1992 by Hindu zealots incited by members of his party.

Modi said the temple heralded a "new era" for India after a ceremony that embodied the triumph of his muscular Hindu nationalist politics, galvanising loyalists ahead of elections this year.

He gifted Macron a miniature replica of the temple as the pair toured Jaipur together on Thursday evening.

A Macron adviser signalled ahead of the visit that rights issues would be discussed, adding that there were "no taboo subjects".

"But the goal is to discuss them with respect and with the aim of achieving concrete results," they added.

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