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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 10, February 23, 2013

India-France Relations: Tremendous Scope Ahead

Tuesday 26 February 2013, by Bharti Chhibber

The recent visit of the new French President, Francois Hollande, to India can be seen as an important stepping-stone in developing an enduring and close partnership. It may not have resulted in inking the much-talked-about Rafale jet deal (the sale of 126 Rafale combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force), which is being negotiated since January 2012, but the fact that this was President Hollande’s first visit to a large Asian democracy and he chose India over Brazil, Russia and South Africa highlights the importance France attaches to its India connection.

In the sphere of defence, President Hollande and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated their desire to cooperate in joint research and development and transfer of technology. In this connection, they noted that the projects for the Scorpene submarine and upgradation of Mirage 2000 were moving forward and steps had been taken for the early finalisation of the short range surface-to-air missile project. Once approved by the governments, these will be co-developed and co-produced in India. The $ 6 billion project would be developed by the MBDA of France and DRDO from the Indian side. The surface-to air-missile defence system would be deployed by the IAF and the Navy. Both the leaders also noted the progress of the ongoing negotiations on the medium multi-role combat aircraft programme and looked forward to its conclusion.

France also showed interest in Maharashtra, especially in areas like infrastructure development and agriculture products in the wake of the proposed nuclear power plant coming up in that State. In December 2010, a project was signed for two pressurised European reactors at Jaitapur, 400 km south of Mumbai, with an option for four more reactors. The $ 9.3 billion framework agreement is a contract for Areva to build a 9900-megawatt nuclear power plant. It has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists who are concerned about seismic activity in the area as well as fears about the safety of nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In an effort to allay concerns about the safety of the nuclear plant, the joint statement at the conclusion of the French dignitary’s visit stressed that the Jaitapur units ‘would incorporate the highest safety standards’.

Some bilateral contracts were also signed between the two countries during this visit. A Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Railways and French National Railways was signed for further cooperation in railways. Both the sides have agreed to strengthen cooperation in the fields of upgradation of railway stations, high-speed corridors and modernisation of the railway network. Under the space cooperation programme, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and France’s Centre National de Etudes Spatiales (CNES) have jointly identified the means to pursue further cooperation including the possibilities, through missions, payloads and applications, of an exchange of research scientists and technologists of both countries.

A Letter of Intent on the Intensification of Cooperation in the fields of education, higher education and research was further signed between the two sides. Both sides further finalised cooperation between various Indian and French educational institutions including between the University of Delhi and Sciences Po, Paris. The partnership between eight European institutions of higher learning led by Ecole Centrale de Nantes and a consortium of Indian institutions of higher education led by IIT, Madras will allow funding for the visits of scholars and scientists to each other’s country for the next three years.

India-France relations have always been good. The two share similar ideals and values of sovereignty, democracy, pluralism and cultural diversity. Further, constitutionally both are secular republics. There are differences too between the two countries like divergent views on the NATO intervention in Libya but these have never come in the way of close bilateral cooperation. Of late, India has supported the French military intervention in Mali over the past few months. It had voted in favour of three resolutions of the Security Council on Mali in 2012, and has also announced a very substantial financial contribution for Mali.

Indo-France relations saw an upward swing with the establishment of strategic partnership in 1998. There have been regular head of state or government-level summits and cooperation in defence, nuclear energy and space fields. Following the waiver by the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group enabling India to resume full civil nuclear cooperation with the international community, France was the first country with which India entered into an agreement on nuclear energy. Moreover, France has been a strong supporter of India’s increasing role in international organisations. During the visit of ex-President Sarkozy to India in December 2010, France supported India’s call for in-depth reform of the United Nations Security Council, to make it more representative of the contemporary world. He also endorsed the Indian candidature for the four multilateral export controls regimes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement.

There exists a network of mechanisms between India and France in different dimensions of cooperation that need to be fully appreciated as well as further deepened. As the Indian Ocean is critical for both the states, whether it is the question of French bases in the region or dependence on oil imports, the cooperation potential is immense in this area not only in information exchange and joint anti-piracy operations but in the wake of China’s growing dominance. The Indo-French Naval Exercise, Varuna, was held in the Indian Ocean in January 2011. India can further learn from or take advantage of French security technologies in the sphere of terrorist or cyber attack. Already a ‘Joint Working Group on Terrorism’ for coope-ration in the fight against terrorism exists.

However, in the field of economic cooperation much more needs to be done. Apart from being the fifth largest economy of the world, France is also a significant member of the G-8. Owing to its huge technological strength France plays a crucial role in agricultural research, aviation, food processing, railways, space and transport. However, Indo-France bilateral trade and investment do not highlight the optimum use of their capability. Further, other European Union countries like Germany, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands are above France as India’s trading partners. In 2010, the bilateral trade increased about 31 per cent over 2009 to 7.03 billion euros. Trade between India and France was valued at about 8 billion euros in 2011-12 whereas the target was to achieve 12 billion euros by 2012. As far as investments in India are concerned, France is the ninth largest investor. The Indo-French CEOs Forum was set up in 2009 with the mandate to identify new avenues for cooperation and coordination. President Hollande is keen on developing bilateral economic cooperation which was clear from the presence of over 60 French corporate leaders who had accompanied him for the Mumbai meeting, and the President’s open invitation to Indian firms to invest in France. To expand trade and investment, the two sides mentioned in a joint statement that they had decided ‘to establish an annual bilateral dialogue between the two Finance Ministries on economic and financial issues’.

France and India are also important partners in space technology and applications. The ISRO and CNES hold annual bilateral meetings. Arianespace provides launch facilities for Indian satellites (INSAT). On October 12, 2011, the megha-tropiques earth observation satellite, jointly developed by the ISRO and CNES to understand the monsoon dynamics and its forecasting, was successfully launched from Sriharikota.

On the cultural front, Indian events on art, music, dance and literature are quite popular in France. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations sponsors visits of Indian artists to France as also exchange of students in the field of culture and art. Indian Film Festivals are organised round the year in France. Likewise, the French Cultural Festival, ‘Bonjour India’, was held in India in 2009.

Defence cooperation with France is a key aspect of India’s bilateral relationship with the former. In fact India is a lucrative market for the French defence industry; this is clear from President Hollande’s recent interest. However, it is time for a more strategically deep engagement between the two partners. With recession in Europe, major European countries are looking towards India; hence it is critical that taking note of the French capability and India’s growing stature and making full use of the growth opportunities available, the two sides ought to foster further cooperation in all arenas—be it economic, defence, political, space, science and technology, culture or education.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches Political Science in the University of Delhi. Her e-mail: bharti.chhibber@ gmail.com

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