On Wednesday, 4 May, along with a small bunch of journalists, we waited for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to arrive in the courtyard of the Elysée, the French Presidential palace.
Outside its gilded gates was another small crowd on the pavement –primarily people who wanted to get a glimpse of France’s first couple and a handful of Indians who wanted to see PM Modi. They didn’t know yet, but they would be whisked away just before the motorcade arrived and would get to see neither.
PM Modi was going to be at least ten minutes late, someone from the Elysée staff said. There was much groaning from French journalists who were already visibly unexcited by the day’s mission. A photographer started rolling a cigarette. Someone took out a crumpled newspaper to read.
The Indian journalists (99 percent from ANI or channels with dubious editorial intentions) were more stressed. They used the time to reposition their cameras to get even better shots.
Reporting on Bilateral Visits
I tried to think about how I could make a piece about this event meaningful. Before turning mainstream, all honest opinions that challenge corrupt power are trapped in a weird space where they are rejected as too radical even to be taken seriously. Then a dramatic shift occurs, and the moderate stance looks unbelievably ridiculous. I am waiting for a dramatic shift in how journalists report bilateral visits because the way it has been done in the last few decades seems absurd.
This was PM Modi’s fourth visit to Paris, and this time, I want to write about it not just with radical honesty but also with a lack of gravitas – I find both missing in the “template reporting” of state visits.
It’s always the standard talk about the strategic partnership of the two great countries and the regurgitating of inputs from the Foreign Secretary; no real questions are asked and no real answers given, yet everyone’s happy to be part of something supposedly momentous.
The duped journalists of mainstream media get all euphoric, their physical proximity to power incapacitating them in ways that make it impossible for them to admit the main aim of all state visits – to oil the wheels of the state-corporate nexus with little or no consideration for “the people” of the countries in question.
Indifference to PM Modi
The French media was as blasé as it always is when Modi comes visiting. No matter how tightly he hugs his “friend” the President, people in France remain indifferent to the Indian Prime Minister. Most don’t even know who he is. All they want to know is if that Indian guy will be signing contracts to buy expensive French military ware. Will he snap up some nuclear reactors this time or not?
“What is his wife called?” a French woman journalist asked me as we waited for Modi. She looked disappointed with my answer.
Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron appeared on the steps, hands clasped, a few minutes later. Brigitte was in a Louis Vuitton outfit, with its lower half matching the blue of the French flag, we’d be told by fashion media the next day. Macron looked like he’d just had his hair blow-dried. I tried to look carefully as there had been wild rumours that he wears a “moumoute”, a wig or toupee. I couldn’t tell. Anyway, for the record, he has denied it.
A grey Renault rolled in, and Modi stepped out, immediately lunging at the French President to give him a tight hug. It was fully reciprocated. I was cringing on Brigitte’s behalf and half-afraid she would also get hugged, but they only shook hands. Modi leapt towards the steps, not even waiting for the Macrons to lead the way.
No Major Announcements on Rafale
A joint statement was issued after their meeting. The next day, most French headlines were about the two leaders discussing Ukraine. Local journalists were made to understand that India couldn’t really take a hostile stance against Russia but that France would “help” India gain more autonomy in its strategic interests, especially those that it was dependent on Russia for.
Let me simplify: the French are trying to cash on the current crisis to see if they can oust Russia in lucrative arms and energy deals with India. As if waging war ruins Russia’s moral standing to sell arms and somehow makes France more of a legitimate arms vendor. Aren’t arms meant for waging war? Does it matter who is selling them?
About the Rafale – the inside info is only given to the chosen journalists who make too much noise about the size of the contract and the might of the Rafales, drowning the voices of the journalists, (including, dare I say, me), who have tried to draw attention to the corruption behind the deal being the main story.
Nothing major was announced regarding the Rafale except that both sides would “find creative ways for France’s deeper involvement in the Atmanirbhar Bharat efforts.
Talks Newly Packaged as “Atmanirbhar Bharat”
There used to be much talk of “Made in India” during Modi’s earlier visits. This was newly packaged as “Atmanirbhar Bharat” this time – impossible for the French to pronounce and not their priority. The French are always trying to wiggle out of this part of deals, and the Indians end up complying – as long as a handful of favoured corporate interests remain appeased, I suppose.
Remember public sector HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) in the Rafale deal? The “made in India” folks who were thrown out of the window unceremoniously and replaced by Anil Ambani. It was all strategic, apparently.
In France, India has this image of being difficult to please for big contracts. “France in the waiting room for most (arms and nuclear) deals,” read one French headline.
It would be a good thing if the delay was about Indians negotiating hard to spend less but there are layers of corruption in all this red tape wheeling and dealing.
Language of Climate Apartheid
When they think no Indians are watching, the French tend to talk about India in demeaning ways. I remember how the President’s advisors and French journalists laughed about the Indian ambition to get a seat in the United Nations Security Council back when Sarkozy was visiting India. He was making tall promises in public that he would back India’s candidature wholeheartedly.
During more recent state visits, I have repeatedly heard the French label India as the “third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter”. Something that they’d like to “help” Indians with.
Firstly, this is the language of climate apartheid, erasing France’s own role as one of the wealthy industrialised nations that have historically been the biggest emitters.
Secondly, the same crisis that puts the poorest at the highest risk has become a profit-making enterprise for countries like France that stand to benefit from expensive renewable energy transitions.
No Mention of Raging Islamophobia
This week’s joint declaration also said there would be “zero tolerance for the use of Afghan territory for spreading terrorism”. How helpful for the millions of Afghans, especially women, suffering under Taliban rule. Of course, neither side addressed the raging Islamophobia in their respective countries, affecting large parts of the population. Cow vigilantes were assaulting Muslim men in Haryana while Modi was busy shaking hands with European leaders.
Bilateral and state visits are primarily opportunities for fawning journalists to beat around the bush and make empty analyses. This may not be a glorious time for press freedom to bring about a sea change, but can we at least stop taking this brand of reporting seriously.
(Noopur Tiwari is an independent journalist and the founder of the feminist platform “Smashboard”. She tweets @NoopurTiwari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)