Guest Column | French Embrace

It is in India’s interest to improve its ties with France to strengthen the strategic relationship

Kanwal SibalKanwal Sibal

The India-France strategic partnership has got a boost by President Francois Hollande’s visit to India as chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations, fifth time that a French leader has been so honoured. Following nine months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bilateral visit to France which yielded substantial results and set at rest murmurs about the absence of Europe in his intensive foreign travel plans after assuming power, Hollande’s visit has consolidated gains accomplished in April 2015 and, indeed, expanded them, and therefore has not remained only at the ceremonial level. The participation of a foreign military contingent in the parade – in this case a French regiment – is unprecedented and reciprocates the gesture made to us by the French in inviting an Indian contingent to march on the Champs Elysees on Bastille Day in July 2008.

If conventional wisdom were accepted that today economics matters much more than politics or security in relations between states, the relatively moderate scale of Indo-French economic ties would not prima facie justify the exceptional gesture that we have again made to France on our Republic Day. What then would explain why we are drawn towards France as a privileged partner and why we accord it such distinction?

Of the several explanations one has been our historical need to have a partner in Europe for protecting our political, security and economic interests at a time when Europe’s weight in international affairs was much greater than it is today. Europe was important for us also for maintaining a balance in our international relations between the West and the East, consistent with our policy of nonalignment. On top of this, our foreign policy differences with the US as the leader of the western world on vital strategic issues required us to prevent the emergence of a consolidated western block against us. Imposition of sanctions, denial of technologies, negative interference in our neighbourhood, and even pressure on human rights and other social issues, have characterised our ties with the US, to which Europe, too, was party to different degrees. France was no doubt a member of the western alliance and the US-led technology denial regimes, and took its adherence to its ‘international’ commitments seriously, but it has nevertheless always given itself some margin of manoeuvre in dealing with India as part of its attachment to an independent foreign policy. With the UK’s foreign policy too closely tied to that of the US and Germany’s external relations constrained by the legacy of World War II, France stood out for us as a country that could be most gainfully befriended within Europe in our national interest.

French President Francois Hollande with PM Narendra Modi

Today, our own relations with the US have greatly improved, to the point that we have now a strategic partnership with it, and France, too, is working closely with the US within the NATO framework. To that extent the independence of French foreign policy has diminished geopolitical salience for us today, even though both countries still subscribe to the concept of strategic autonomy and mention it in our joint statements, as was done again during the recent visit by Hollande. What remains relevant and underpins our relationship with France is its breadth, which is not matched by our other partners in Europe. Our strongest economic partnership is with Germany, while language, education and people to people contacts tie us most to the UK. But with France, in addition to substantial economic ties, cultural exchanges and growing educational contacts, it is cooperation in strategic areas like nuclear, space and defence that gives the relationship a dimension of its own. Even with the current upgraded ties with the US, the levels of nuclear, space and defence cooperation are not of the same order if we take these three areas as a whole, though the scope of our overall dialogue with the US is unmatched.

France has, indeed, partnered us in defence, space and nuclear areas for decades, providing us aircraft, submarines, tanks, guns, radars, missiles, launching our communication satellites and training our nuclear scientists. Unlike in the case of other key European countries, France’s refusal to impose bilateral sanctions and role in limiting international ones after our nuclear tests, its initiative to open a strategic dialogue with us as an alternative to a sanctions approach, its support for civilian nuclear cooperation with India and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) exemption, its decision to end sale of advanced weaponry to Pakistan some years ago, has made the bilateral relationship valuable and underpins India’s positive feelings towards that country.

During Hollande’s visit France has reaffirmed its support for India’s candidature for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council, with India appreciating the important role played by it in moving the process to the stage of text-based negotiations. While committing again to work jointly towards India’s accession to the multilateral export control regimes, namely, the NSG, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, this time both sides have expressed their joint determination to achieve India’s accession to the NSG in 2016, which is important.

Modi has said that he decided to invite Hollande as chief guest after the terrible terrorist attack last November. This being the case, it is not surprising that a robustly worded separate joint statement on counter terrorism has emanated from the visit. With France having been traumatised by horrific terrorist attacks of the kind India has long suffered from forces motivated by the same extremist ideology, the two countries have found unprecedented common language on the terrorism threat facing them, the region and beyond. All our concerns about the terrorist threat to us and steps that should be taken to combat it collectively have found expression in this joint statement. The statement recognises the need to urgently “disrupt terrorist networks and financing channels, eliminate terrorist safe havens, training infrastructure and cross-border movement of terrorists”. It underlines “the need for all countries to effectively deal with terrorism emanating from their territory or territories under their control”, besides seeking action “against all entities, including states that sponsor, provide support, active or passive, to terrorist groups or harbour them”.

This time France has not shied away from pointing towards Pakistan by joining Modi in asking for “decisive actions” against Lashkar-e-Taiyabba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. This delegitimises even the POK-based terrorist group. While condemning the terror attacks in Pathankot and Gurdaspur, the statement calls on Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of these attacks as well as those of the November 2008 Mumbai carnage.

Hollande has commended India’s stabilising role in South Asia, in particular in Afghanistan, where the two sides noted that terrorist activities and proxies supported from safe havens across Afghanistan’s borders posed a grave threat to peace, security and stability of Afghanistan. This is finger-pointing at Pakistan again. In sum, on Pakistan-linked terrorism and on Afghanistan, India and France have found common language. Given that France will now raise the terrorism issue in European instances and in the UN with much greater force than before, we could leverage this to increase pressure on Pakistan, though we will still have to contend with the US reluctance to impose sanctions on Pakistan for its rogue behaviour and China’s protective attitude towards Pakistan, despite its own terrorism-related concerns.

The centre of interest in Hollande’s visit was the expected signature of the Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA) on the purchase of 36 Rafale combat aircraft, as announced by Modi during his April visit to France. In the event, the IGA was deferred as some financial issues could not be resolved despite intensive negotiations prior to Hollande’s arrival. Instead, an MoU on the purchase of the aircraft was signed by the two defence ministers to demonstrate that negotiations were on track and that all other aspects of the IGA had been concluded. It is understood that the unresolved financial issues will be finalised in the next four weeks. During the visit it was also agreed to extend the 2006 Agreement on Defence Cooperation for another 10 years.

While the conclusion of the Rafale deal, with agreement on offset provisions, will be a major boost to Indo-French defence and industrial ties, it has not been smooth sailing in building a strategic defence partnership with France in the defence area. There has been a gap in our political gestures towards France, such as repeated invitations to its leaders to be chief guests at our Republic Day celebrations, and the boosting of our strategic ties in the defence domain. The reasons for this may not be one-sided, with the French not always finding the right balance between commercial considerations and strategic goals and technology transfer issues not being addressed satisfactorily, but the fact is that the contract for 126 Rafale aircraft has got reduced to 36. Despite decades of satisfactory service provided by French origin helicopters like Cheetah and Chetak, the French have been denied the contract of light utility helicopters twice, and now it has been assigned to Russia. The ambitious air defence SR-SAM joint development and production project has been largely abandoned after completion of negotiations. The contract for Airbus 330 Refuelling aircraft has got bogged down. The French side has been reluctant to raise their disappointment on these issues with us so as not distract attention from the priority Rafale contract. It is important, however, to look ahead now. With the Modi government’s emphasis on ‘Make in India’ in defence manufacturing, the emerging new opportunities would require fresh strategies by French companies.

India and France have been engaged in negotiations for some years now for the construction of six 1650 MW each EPR nuclear reactor units at Jaitapur. The restructuring of the French nuclear industry, the high cost of French reactors, the strategies to bring the cost down through localisation of production so that the cost of electricity produced is commercially viable, have all delayed progress. A new impetus has been given, however, to the programme by Modi and Hollande encouraging the conclusion of techno-commercial negotiations for all six reactors, and not two at a time as earlier envisaged, by the end of 2016, with caveats such as due consideration to cost viability of the project, economical financing from the French side, collaboration on transfer of technology and cost-effective localisation of manufacturing in India for large and critical components in accord with government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. A revised MoU between EDF and NPCIL for the construction of six reactors has been inked. That a roadmap has been agreed that aims at starting the implementation of the project in early 2017 suggests that tangible progress is being made.

In the area of space, the two implementing arrangements for cooperation in definition studies on a future joint Thermal Infrared Earth Observation mission are important as night time monitoring capability is involved.

Improving Indo-French economic ties is important for giving greater ballast to our strategic partnership. India has actually become a more valuable partner for France, with the steady growth of its strengths. With the Eurozone in crisis, France facing low growth and high unemployment, the global economy in turmoil, concerns rising about China’s economy and economic woes of other BRICS countries, India, with its projected 7.3 to 7.5 growth rate, is becoming attractive. It is being viewed as a significant contributor to global growth in the years ahead. Modi has galvanised international interest in his development plans and confident messaging abroad about business opportunities in India.

Renewable energy, smart city projects, railway modernisation are areas of potential in expanding bilateral economic ties. Hollande and Modi had jointly launched the new International Solar Alliance (ISA) initiative in Paris on 30 November 2015 on the sidelines of the COP 21. To advance this initiative, the two laid the foundation stone of the building for Headquarters of International Solar Alliance (ISA) and inaugurated the interim Secretariat of the ISA in Gurgaon. Hollande announced 300 million Euros of funding to support solar projects launched by member countries. France, with its experience in urban development, is keen on participating in our Smart Cities project and MoUs were signed during Hollande’s visit for extending technical assistance for the development of Chandigarh, Nagpur and Puducherry. The visit saw follow-up agreements on a semi high-speed project for upgradation of Delhi-Chandigarh line to 200 mph, on cooperation in the station renovation projects for Ambala and Ludhiana railway stations, as well as on shareholding in the Alstom-Indian Railways JV for production of 800 electric locomotives in Madhepura Bihar.

When addressing the French community at the country’s embassy on January 26, Hollande expressed confidence in India and Modi’s stewardship of the country. He spoke of his personal rapport with him and how it could benefit bilateral ties. He spoke of the affinity between the two countries. A clear intention on both sides to broaden and deepen the strategic partnership exists, for which the overall conditions are favourable.



Agreements Signed During the Visit

Defence: Defence minister Manohar Parrikar and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drain signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) acknowledging the agreement to purchase 36 Rafale aircrafts by India. The issue of the final price of the aircraft remains to be resolved. Once this is done, the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) will come to a conclusion.

A statement of intent was signed between Mahindra Defence and Airbus Helicopters for the production of helicopters in India. The agreement was signed in Chandigarh between the senior executives of the companies. Both companies will finalise the formation of the joint venture which will act as the primary contractor for India’s military helicopter tenders including Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter (RSH), Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) and Naval Multi-role Helicopter (NMRH) programmes.

Energy: French company EDF has initiated a Memorandum of Understanding with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), for the projected construction of six EPR nuclear reactors at Jaitapur in western India. The Jaitapur project is at a stage of preliminary technical studies. It was given an initial environmental clearance in 2010.

French company EDF has consolidated its position in the country by signing a partnership agreement contact with India’s SITAC Group. Agreement provides EDF to acquire 50 per cent share in SITAC Wind Management and Development Private Limited. This represents the first significant French investment in the wind energy sector in India.

Other important agreements include the Letter of Intention between the French company CEA and India’s Green Ventures on the construction of autonomous solar-powered electrification systems with high social impact. Memorandum of Understanding between the companies CEA and Crompton Greaves was signed to develop autonomous high power photovoltaic systems and smart grids. The contract of photovoltaic systems as part of ‘Make in India’ policy aims to secure electricity supply in Indian airports, integrating French technological solutions in smart grids.

Space: Aluru Seelin Kiran Kumar, the chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation signed three agreements with Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). First agreement was for the development of a third joint satellite for climate surveillance. The implementing framework for this agreement was signed in April 2015 between CNES and ISRO when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France. Second agreement is to host an instrument of CNES — Argos 4 — dedicated to monitoring the environment onboard the Indian satellite Oceansat 3. Furthermore, a letter of intent (LoI) was signed between the two organisations for the French participation in the next Indian missions for space exploration (Mars). The LoI also contains dispositions regarding the formation of a joint working group for space exploration, mechanism of exchange of information between the two parties.

Education & Research: To strengthen the bilateral dialogue in the field of science and technology between India and France, the two countries signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement for creation and organisation of a mixed committee in the area of scientific research. Minister of science and technology and earth sciences, Harsh Vardhan and French minister of foreign affairs, Laurence Fabius signed the agreement.

The agreement for sponsored Ph.D Fellowship in France between Indian Institute of Technology of Mumbai and Thales was signed to increase the academic engagements between the two countries. Two other agreements were also signed between the Indian Institute of Education and Research of Pune and ENS Lyon; and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai and CNRS (+ Télécom Bretagne + Université de Bretagne occidentale + Université de Bretagne sud, ENI Bretagne, ENSTA Bretagne).

Transport & Urban Development: Three MoUs were signed between French and Indian companies for technical assistance under ‘Smart Cities’ programme. The industry experts involved with this mission will support the cities of Chandigarh, Pondicherry and Nagpur in the drawing-up and implementation of their ‘smart cities’ programme. Coming from the competent public sector in the fields of urban transport, water, waste management, solar energy, urban planning, architecture and heritage, these experts will work in the three cities by rotation with the support of the India’s ministry of urban development. MoUs were also signed between public sector enterprise Engineering Projects India Limited (EPIL) and nine French companies on sustained infrastructure projects.

In the area of transport, Indian Railways has signed joint ventures with French companies for the production of electric locomotives, and a programme that will undertake feasibility study of a renovation project for Ludhiana and Ambala railway stations.

Administration & Governance: The two countries signed an agreement on cooperation in public administration. This agreement aims at reinforcing and favouring bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the field of public administration and administrative reform. The emphasis would be especially on the usage of digital tools in the relationship between the administration and the public.

Culture: The two countries signed cultural exchange programme to be held every three-year between Indian and French ministries of culture. The Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP) regulates almost all cultural exchanges organised by the two governments. Another agreement includes the declaration of intent for conducting next round of French festival in India, called Bonjour India and India festival in France, Namaste France.

Others: The countries also signed an agreement in the field of methodologies of analysis of food risk and total diet studies; and two commercial contracts in the field of e-payment, based on the most secure technologies.


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