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Return of Sarkozy shows France's importance to India

Thursday December 02, 2010 12:49:26 PM, Claude Arpi, IANS

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 since 1998.

'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 defence.

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 necessary process.

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 Mumbai.

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




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