Bonjour India, Namaste France

Cultural and scholarly fascination has ensured that India and France remain deeply engaged as societies. Relations between them as states have proved enduring since Charles de Gaulle’s era due to a fundamental affinity born of common values and a shared passion for independence in foreign affairs. This vital relationship, showcased astutely during President Francois Hollande’s recent visit to India, is characterized by three Ss – Synergy, Sovereignty and Stability. A concise 21-paragraph joint statement reflects the two governments’ faith in independence, strategic autonomy and strengthened multilateralism.

The phrase ‘strategic partnership’, though devalued considerably due to overuse, applies aptly to Indo-French ties. An approach favouring multi-polarity and anchored in a sophisticated worldview permits them to forge coordination, despite divergences on issues such as Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. Strategic partnership has grown well in the past 15 years. Introduced in 1998, it survived many changes of government in Paris and Delhi. Parleys between Hollande and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have led to their decision for its “robust development”.

Four key pillars of strategic partnership are: civil nuclear energy, defence, space and counterterrorism.

The first relates to French assistance in setting up six nuclear reactors in Jaitapur in Maharashtra, negotiations for which have been proceeding rather gingerly. Their complexity cannot be denied which stems from growing concerns over nuclear safety after the Fukushima disaster, implications of India’s nuclear liability legislation, and rising costs as a consequence. The two leaders have decided to expedite these negotiations. A comforting thought is France’s continuing support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other export control bodies even though success may still prove elusive.

Defence cooperation is not all about Rafale only, although it forms an important segment today. Association with France is now 60 years old as Dassault’s first aircraft – Ouragan – was inducted into the Indian Air Force in 1953. The impressive performance of Mirage 2000 during Kargil conflict is well known. The French joyously celebrated their triumph when the Rafale order was bagged – 126 aircraft for $12 billion, beating competition from US and a European consortium. Agreement may be signed later this year. The two leaders have given directions for speedy conclusion of negotiations.

A top diplomatic source indicated that while the first 18 aircraft would be manufactured entirely in France, by the time “the last of the 126 aircraft rolls in, 80 percent of the value addition is supposed to have been done in India”. Beyond aircraft acquisition, attention remains focussed on equipment needed by Indian Navy such as Scorpene submarines. Early finalisation of short range surface-to-air missiles project is also envisaged.

Space cooperation is moving apace. A joint satellite, Megha-Tropicques, was launched in October 2011 for studying tropical atmosphere. Another joint satellite, to be launched soon, will study sea surface altitude. These initiatives, according to an official of India’s external affairs ministry, are seen as “a significant contribution” to the global community’s understanding of weather and climate change.

As regards terrorism, the two leaders were absolutely clear. “No compromise is possible with terrorists,” affirms the joint statement. A striking identity of views on the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan, Mali and Pakistan’s obligation to punish perpetrators of Mumbai terror attack was especially notable. Relevant agencies of the two governments are known to cooperate closely for quite a long time.

An area of relative weakness in Indo-French relations is trade and investment cooperation. The two sides are lagging behind for meeting targets in trade growth. In 2011-12, trade was valued at $8.89 billion, which falls short of the target set at a previous summit.

French companies have invested $3.5 billion in India, although a recent study by the French embassy in Delhi claims that the actual figure is over five times. Considering that 800 French companies have operations in India and several top Indian corporates are active in French market, governments need to be more assertive.

The two sides reviewed negotiations concerning India-EU free trade agreement, already delayed inordinately. EU ambassador Joabo Cravinho’s assertion that “elections in India on the horizon” could delay these negotiations further was disturbing. Recession in Europe is another major constraint. The coming weeks will indicate if Paris and Delhi, working together with Brussels, can break the logjam.

A truly promising facet of the relationship is growing people-to-people linkages concerning education and culture. Presently 3,000 Indian students are in French universities and 1,500 young French are studying in India. These numbers need to go up rapidly. French admiration of India’s culture and cinema is much appreciated. France is planning events to mark the first centenary of Indian cinema. India will be ‘the special country of honour’ at the Cannes film festival this year. The famous Louvre museum in Paris will hold a major exhibition.

As compared to 1970s when I served as a young diplomat in Paris, relations have diversified and deepened hugely. Last week four agreements relating to railways, education, culture and space exploration were signed, besides business agreements. “I do sense a connection between India and France…we do complement each other significantly,” said Hollande. His visit is certain to give a fillip to strengthen this “multifaceted” relationship further.

By Rajiv Bhatia

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.