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How the French media covered Modi’s visit

The various agreements signed between India and France—including on nuclear and renewable energies, railways, visa regulations, education, science and technology, and the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets—during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France from April 9-12 are likely to take the bilateral relationship forward.

But the Indian media’s enthusiasm, starting in early April, about the agreements and potential investments has been in contrast to the French media’s relatively low excitement. The French media tend to cover diplomatic visits less than the Indian media do, and mentioned Modi’s visit only a day before his arrival in Paris. On the whole, except for the Rafale deal, newspapers were quite disinterested in the visit.

France’s three leading national newspapers, Le Monde (centre-left), Libération (left-wing) and Le Figaro (right-wing) carried a total of 13 articles on Modi’s visit between April 9 and 13. In comparison, the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping in March elicited more attention, with a total of 18 articles published in the same papers.

Unsurprisingly, the French media’s main angle was through the Rafale lens: starting with speculation in Le Monde  about the chances of the mega-contract being signed to rejoicing after the major deal to sell the aircraft went through.

Libération detailed the moves by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to bring the deal to a conclusion, and explained its benefits: a shift to more exports is good for France at a time when the country’s budget is under pressure with its armed forces  posted on various external fronts (such as Mali, the Central African Republic, and Iraq) and occupied internally in counter-terrorism.

Through articles on the Rafale negotiations, the French media highlighted the strength of the strategic partnership. The history of the partnership—cooperation in space, defence, and civil nuclear energy, starting from 1998—was unanimously described as a success.

But an op-ed in the La Croix, a primarily Catholic newspaper, struck a different note and wondered if “selling fighter jets was morally responsible”, perhaps implying that India does not really need Rafale for self-defence. On the other hand, Les Echos, which covers finance, supported India’s need to strengthen its air force, considering the potential threats to the country from China and Pakistan.

On the whole, French newspapers were enthusiastic about the Indian prime minister’s economic reforms. Le Figaro published an interview with Modi on the morning of his arrival, where he outlined his ‘Make in India’ and “smart cities” plans and called for greater investments in key sectors such as infrastructure, defence, and nuclear and renewable energies.

Other background articles in these newspapers highlighted India’s colossal challenges and spoke optimistically of India’s economic future, though Le Monde published an article about those who would be “left-behind” by ‘Make in India’.

Modi was described in La Croix as a “charismatic and energetic” man who can make India a “third world power”, provided it receives enough foreign investments. Talking about a “Modi revolution”, Le Figaro stated that “India has an exceptional opportunity to become a driving force of global growth.”

The complementarities between India’s needs and France’s expertise were emphasised, with a general recommendation that France must heavily invest in India.  In an interview to Le Monde, Anil Ambani, chairman of the Reliance Group, called India a “natural economic partner” for France; Michel Testard of Trinity Partnership, an international advisory firm, underlined what French companies can learn from India: a new business model more suitable for emerging markets and “frugal” solutions—cheaper and more efficient products—which will appeal to the middle classes in India as well as in Europe, where their purchasing power is declining.

French journalists seemed to take pride in Modi’s interest in France’s high technology sectors, and Le Figaro called him a “demanding client.” Space cooperation and Modi’s visit to the Airbus facilities in Toulouse were the main topics of interest for La Dépêche du Midi, a local newspaper. It carried an interview with the president of the National Centre for Space Studies to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of India-France space cooperation and the successes of the Saral-Altika and Mégha-Tropiques satellites launched to study the climate and the environment, as well as a possible new cooperation on a Mars exploration mission.

The media, including Atlantico and Le Figaro, also welcomed the agreement to fast-track the nuclear reactor project in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. The French multinational Areva has been commissioned to build the project through an agreement signed in 2009 with the government of India, which can help regenerate its fortunes at a time when Areva is showing colossal losses.

The French media also acknowledged the renewed pro-activeness of Indian diplomacy. La Croix wrote about India’s how new “self-confidence” on the world stage contrasted with the “apathy” of the UPA years.

But some journalists were also cautious about Modi’s Hindu nationalistic inclinations, recalling his state government’s alleged implication in the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. La Croix and Le Monde expressed concern about religious minorities in India, especially Christians, citing attacks against churches and reconversion campaigns, and questioned Modi’s silence on this issue.  They regretted that this issue was not brought up during Modi’s talks with French officials, who presumably did not want to jeopardise the other negotiations

In an article titled ‘For Narendra Modi, democracy is to be enjoyed with moderation’, L’Opinion wondered about his commitment to democratic institutions, and said that his fascination for the late Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, and his “urgency” in fast-tracking development make Modi impatient about democratic debates on issues such as the Land Acquisition Bill.

But as Le Monde wrote on April 9, France is now “making a fresh start with the Indian Prime Minister”, and France and its investors see India as a high-potential partner.

On the whole, Modi’s visit to France received in-depth but limited coverage, and it has generated enthusiasm about the future of the bilateral relationship.

Laurent Glattli is a research intern at Gateway House. He is working on a masters degree in international relations at the Institut d’etudes politiques de Toulouse, France.

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