When the French president visited
India in January 2008, he was unmarried. The stern Indian protocol
babus did not allow him to bring Carla Bruni, his future wife -
how would they seat her at official receptions, they asked. While
admiring the Taj Mahal in Agra, Sarkozy wrote in the guestbook
that he would return with Mrs Sarkozy-Bruni. On Dec 5, his promise
will be fulfilled.
But that is not all about the relations between France and India
which have enjoyed a trusted and dependable strategic partnership
'Friendship' preceded 'partnership'. General de Gaulle had sided
with India when in October 1962 China came down the slopes of NEFA
(North East Frontier Agency, later renamed Arunachal Pradesh).
Later, during the Bangladesh War, France continued to be India's
friend: Andre Malraux, General de Gaulle's senior minister,
alerted the public to the extent of the massacres in East
Pakistan; he declared that he was ready to fight on Bangladesh's
side. Then, in the 1980s, under President Francois Mitterrand, a
technology transfer for the Mirages 2000 was signed.
President Sarkozy's forthcoming four-day stay in India starting
from Dec 4 can only reinforce this bilateral partnership,
particularly in the field of civil nuclear cooperation, space and
In September 2008, France was the first country to sign a civilian
nuclear deal with India. When asked about progress on the
implementation of this historic deal, Ranjan Mathai, India's
Ambassador to France, confirmed that negotiations were proceeding
smoothly between Areva and its Indian counterpart, the Nuclear
Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL): "There are issues
related to the cost or the technical aspects of the project,
safety, etc. to be sorted out. [But] if one looks at the entire
picture, we have made substantial progress.
"Hopefully in a few weeks, we will reach some conclusions. Then, a
techno-commercial contract has to be finalized, but this will take
a little more time."
Not only has the 9,900-MW Jaitapur Nuclear Plant received
environmental clearance from the ministry of environment and
forests but the Nuclear Liabilities Bill was also passed by the
Indian parliament. French diplomats believe it is an important
step forward in clarifying the issues.
For both sides, the liability issue is a complicated question and
the responsibilities between the 'supplier' (Areva) and the
'operator' (NPCIL) need to be clearly delineated. It is a long and
Though defence has always been a key component of the partnership,
France and India see eye to eye on a wide range of issues.
Today, the main ongoing joint project is the manufacture, under
French licence, of six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon docks near
In October, Herve Morin, the French defence minister till a few
weeks ago, told us in an interview for the Indian Defence Review:
"Among other projects that have matured, one can cite the
modernisation of the Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fleet; two joint
development projects - the Maitri project for a surface-to-air
defence missile system, and the Kaveri fighter aircraft engine;
the supply of reconnaissance and observation helicopters or, in
the slightly longer term, the second phase of six submarines."
Regarding the sale of armaments to Pakistan, Morin remained vague:
"Pakistan is an essential partner for fighting terrorism." But
there is more behind the scenes, (according to Wikileaks, during a
meeting with Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence in
February, Morin "expressed doubt about the willingness of the
Pakistani government to fight extremists at home").
This awareness translated into a strong stand when Islamabad tried
to gain access to French knowhow for its Chinese-built JF-17 jet
fighters. Probably pressurised by New Delhi, Paris decided to deny
advanced radars and other electronic gadgets for Pakistani fighter
planes. Paris thought it would not only immediately fall into
Chinese hands (which are skilled in reverse technology) but it
would also jeopardize important deals with India.
Concrete 'operational' cooperation is taking place in several
fields; one is sharing of intelligence inputs. The visit to India
of Jean-David Levitte, the 'sherpa' of President Sarkozy during
the second week of October, was not only to prepare President
Sarkozy's visit but also to inform the government of India of the
serious terrorist threats faced by France.
Economy is also an important aspect of the bilateral relationship.
Mathai called it the 'second pillar of our relationship'. The
creation in 2009 of a CEOs' Forum promised to further enhance the
economic exchanges. In 2008, the French president and the Indian
prime minister had placed the bar very high: a jump from six
billion euros to 12 billion euros in bilateral trade by the end of
2012 was a very ambitious target. It might be reached.
While some observers say France is an old nation which should
offer its Security Council seat to India, many believe a strong
relationship with France would help balance a historically less
reliable India-US collaboration. The success of the visit will
ultimately depend on how far Sarkozy takes India seriously.
(French author and expert on the history of Tibet, China and the
Indian subcontinent, Claude Arpi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)