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History: France-India relations
2000-19: a special relationship grows
Could France be taking over the special place Russia has in the Indian system? It’s been about two decades in the making, but this scratch card may be finally showing its combination.
Consider: Isro wants to go to Venus, and send up a manned space mission. France is a partner. In the Indian Ocean region, France and India have agreed to send up almost 12 satellites to enhance maritime domain awareness. France has offered to share its naval bases with India in Reunion, Abu Dhabi, Djibouti. New Delhi and Paris are on the same page on their Indo-Pacific policies.
Russia doesn’t believe in the idea of the Indo-Pacific, and has been quite irritated with India for pushing what Moscow sees as a US line, while Indian policy is rooting itself in the Indo-Pacific. India is slowly moving away from Russian weapons to Russian energy, which is big. But look at Mozambique for a second. ONGC and Total will operate the Rovuma gas block which holds proven reserves of 75 billion cubic feet, possibly India’s largest investment in Africa.
On the defence front, India has been diversifying away from Russian equipment. But while it has ramped up its defence buys from the US, it is France who seems to be getting some of the big orders. Leave aside Rafale for the moment, the surprise story in the defence space appears to be a joint development of a new generation jet engine in a project unimaginatively dubbed “Infra”. This is important, not only in and of itself but because no one else is in this game and unlike with Russia, India isn’t looking over French shoulders at – China.
Frankly, French industry is actually priced out of the market, comparable to selling regular wine for the price of champagne. To grow, they need lower costs, therefore potentially a partner like India. If India can get its defence manufacturing sector up and running, it’s actually a good fit for French companies to do more here, perhaps even grow their currently shrinking market. It’s no coincidence the outgoing French ambassador Alexandre Ziegler is the new boss at Safran, which is working on the jet engine project with India.
The interesting area is climate change – France sees itself as the global mover and shaker of the climate sector, particularly after the US abdicated its place. But again, it needs scale. India provides the numbers and heft. India is a surprisingly active participant in this space, devising ways to reduce HFC pollution, cleaner maritime transportation and other climate goals. Having delinked itself from China in the climate sphere, India is using the platform provided by France to advance its own goals – prima facie, cleaner growth, with leap-frogging cleaner technologies to creating global space for its development agenda, a favourite of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At the G7 summit last weekend, President Emmanuel Macron showcased India’s voice.
India’s climate activism has global political ambitions – international solar alliance, the coming one-planet summit, etc serving to create alliances around affirmative goals with India playing the lead. India as a climate change agent has huge play in the developed world, allowing India to leverage intent and scale for technology as well as feed its leading power ambition.
With the UK out of the EU, India is also moving its European centre of gravity to France. For its part, France is discovering the way to India’s heart – tourism and students, and a vegetarian option.
On terrorism, etc France has been more forthcoming than many others including Russia. If earlier India stuck to Russia for UNSC veto support, France is coming forward to play that role, which gives India space. Moreover, France doesn’t evoke the same reaction in Washington that Russia does, a relief in New Delhi.
France plays an interesting ‘independent’ role, part of the Western alliance yet with its ‘singularities’. For instance, Macron’s attempts to bring Russia back into the G7 or save Iran’s JCPOA finds approval in New Delhi. Not for nothing did foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale declare that India would support “all” of France’s G7 objectives.
The Indian state still holds Russia in its heart, but Moscow is headed in a direction where India will not go. America is a superpower, not always on India’s side. France could become India’s Goldilocks option.
October 1998, Paris
President Jacques Chirac-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee Vajpayee's visit to France came just five months after the global opprobrium over India's nuclear tests in May 1998. France was the only western nation that didn't condemn the tests, endorsed India's right to test nuclear weapons and signed a strategic partnership
February 2006, New Delhi
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-President Jacques Chirac Chirac assures India of France's help in building a consensus in the 44-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on granting New Delhi access to nuclear fuel and technology for civilian use
September 2008, Paris
President Nicolas Sarkozy-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Singh visits Paris to sign a civil nuclear deal, making France the first country to open nuclear commerce with India in 34 years after the NSG waiver on September 6, 2008
December 2010, New Delhi
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-President Nicolas Sarkozy India signs a $10 billion deal to buy two nuclear reactors from France following talks between Manmohan Singh and Sarkozy. France supports India's entry into the NSG and a permanent membership for it in the UN Security Council
April 2015, Paris
Prime Minister Narendra Modi-President Francois Hollande France supports India's accession to the NSG, Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement. India signs an MoU with France for buying 36 Rafale fighter jets
June 2017, Paris
Prime Minister Modi-President Emmanuel Macron Both leaders endorse the 2015 Paris climate agreement and agree to convene a meeting of the world solar alliance and deepen counterterrorism cooperation