One French presidential visit to India follows another, and although they can’t
be more different in style and appearance, the essence of the Indo-French
relations remains the same – based on trust and history.
Visit by Mr ‘Normal’ - Anything but the Usual
Nine months ago, Fran?is Hollande became President of the French Republic. He
took over from the flamboyant and hyperactive Nicholas Sarkozy justifying the
French press calling the new President, ‘Mr Normal’. It turns out that after
all, Hollande is not that ‘ordinary’. As France was busy with a hot debate over
gay marriages, Hollande suddenly became a chef de guerre, a Commander-in-Chief
when he sent French troops to Mali.
Moreover, the new President had scored over his predecessor even before reaching
New Delhi. While Carla Bruni did not get the coveted status of ‘spouse’ during
Sarkozy’s first visit in January 2008, Hollande’s partner, Madame Valerie
Trierweiler, was treated as such during Hollande’s State visit to India, being
officially received at Rashtrapati Bhawan. But Indo-French relations go far
beyond society gossip or the tight MEA protocol.
In December 2010, as I was in the bus with French journalists returning from
Hyderabad House (where Sarkozy and Dr Manmohan had issued a Joint Statement) to
the Media Centre, everyone wa sbusy with calculators to check the ‘total’ of the
agreements signed. President Sarkozy’s tally reached €17 billion; this was
including €9 million for two Areva nuclear plants in Jaitapur, Maharashtra (not
yet started), the refitting of the Mirage 2000 and other sundries.
This time, there was no big money contract ‘signed’ during Hollande’s visit, but
the new President took time to speak to his interlocutors, whether they were
businessmen, researchers, journalists or ordinary French citizens. Never did I
get the impression of a man in a hurry, a big difference with his predecessor.
The four agreements signed at Hyderabad House after a meeting with the Indian
Prime Minister, included initiating a cultural exchange programme between India
and France (exchanges between artists, architects, cultural stakeholders,
students, teachers, researchers, etc.); a Letter of Intent on the
Intensification of Cooperation in the Fields of Higher Education and Research; a
Statement of Intent for long-term cooperation in Space; and, a Joint Statement
to strengthen cooperation in the railway sector.
The agreements signed are not as ‘tangible’ as those inked by Sarkozy in
December 2010, but signal a close and long-term partnership in diverse fields
such as defence, civil nuclear energy, space, economic and scientific exchange
What emerged clearly from the presidential visitis that the relationship between
France and India is ‘historic’, old, stable and based on trust. This was
repeatedly mentioned during the President’s two-day stay in Delhi and Mumbai.
In the critical domain of defence, the Joint Statement affirms: “The leaders
noted that projects for the Scorpene submarine and upgrade of the Mirage 2000
are moving forward and steps are being taken for early finalisation of the SRSAM
Project (between MBDA and DRDO). Both sides noted the on-going progress of
negotiations on the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) programme and look
forward to their conclusion.” ‘The mother of all deals’, the supply of 126 MMRCA
to the Indian Air Force, for which the Rafale of Dassault Aviation has been
selected, was, of course, at the heart of the visit.
Someone noted that if Dassault’s karma is good, the deal may be signed before
the summer. A week earlier at Aero India 2013, the Indian Air Chief confirmed
that the file would be sent to the Finance Ministry sometime in April/May, and
if it comes back with favourable notings, the deal may be signed soon after.
The main issue seems to be a lack of ‘understanding’ between Dassault and
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). News had circulated that Dassault was keen to
have a deal with Reliance Industries to build 108 Rafales in India (18 will be
directly supplied from France). Defence Minister AK Antony had to clarify that
Dassault could not decide on the quantum of work taken up by HAL in the deal, as
the tender mentions that HAL will be the Indian partner of the French firm. The
Anglo-Italian choppergate will certainly not incite the government to change the
rules of the game.
As per the Joint Statement, the two nations have decided “to promote an
ambitious and balanced Free Trade Agreement between India and the EU; establish
an annual bilateral dialogue on economic and financial issues; facilitate and
support investments from French companies into India and Indian companies into
France; foster people mobility between the two countries and twining of higher
An important part of the State visit was dedicated to economic cooperation. On
the first day, addressing the Economic Forum held at the Taj Hotel, President
Hollande gave a business perspective to the Strategic Partnership between the
Hollande pointed out that France is ranked 9th as an investor in India, “It is
not enough,” he said, adding, “…India is ranked 13th as an investor in France,
it is far too little.”
He regretted that bilateral exchanges have been stagnating at €7.5 billion, the
objective of €12 billion (fixed by Sarkozy in 2008) yet to be reached. In his
own style, he asserted: “Me, I don’t want to fix objectives with figures, but
what I know is that we have large domains of collaboration, great potential and
(possibility of) common development”. He mentioned amongst others, the fields of
energy, transport, audio-visual, culture and large retailing.
On the second day, the French President travelled to Mumbai, where he toured the
Lafarge Research and Development Centre and later addressed a number of CEOs of
Indian companies. He told them, “Mumbai is India’s economic heart; I can feel it
pulsating at high speed. It is India’s industrial, commercial and financial
centre; the first port of your great nation. It is, therefore, the privileged
place to speak about the future economic relations between France and India.”
The Mumbai leg of the visit was clearly to invite businessmen of both countries
to develop closer contacts and eventually invest in each other’s economies.
Indian CEOs were told: “More than ever we have to be partners, partners for
A day earlier, The Times of India asked the President why France trails other
European countries in trade with India. He answered: “In France, as in India, we
wish to boost growth. The development of our bilateral trade must contribute to
that goal. But to state things frankly, Indian customs duties are very high in
certain areas, such as the food-processing sector. The entire challenge of the
FTA under discussion between the EU and India is to give fresh impetus to our
trade both ways.”
Several times, Hollande mentioned Europe: “Our interests are linked. We, in
Europe, want to create stability, trust, but also growth. You, here in India,
like every important emerging nation, should take part in the world’s growth.”
He firmly added: “I can tell you, the crisis in the Eurozone is over,” but (to
grow) France needs the help of great emerging economies like India.”
A few days later, Prime Minister Cameron would speak the same language, minus
mentioning Europe, of course.
While pointing out that French companies employ more than 240,000 skilled Indian
workers, Hollande said that the trade should be balanced and mutually
During the two days, whenever he had the occasion, the President invited Indian
companies to invest in France: “You are welcome. You will find the best
technologies in France, very good infrastructure, a workforce of exceptional
During a working breakfast, when senior heads of the Indian industry asked him
if investing in France could be a window on Europe, he answered (in English, can
you believe it!): “It is not a window, it is an open door.” He insisted that he
was not only addressing large enterprises, but also medium and small-scale
He introduced to the audience the Special Representative for economic relations
with India, Paul Hermelin, Chairman of the large IT firm Capgemini. Hermelin’s
job will be to try to bring some vitality to the relatively slow economic
relations. Hollande recalled several times that there are currently 750 French
companies working in India; he particularly mentioned the Banque Nationale de
Paris, which came to Mumbai 150 years ago.
But everything is not rosy. It is not always easy for French companies to
‘settle’ in India (that is perhaps why Dassault seems nervous). Take Snecma, a
French multinational aircraft engine manufacturer based in France. For several
years, Snecma worked with Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), a lab under
DRDO for the joint development of the Kaveri engine for India’s Light Combat
Aircraft. The Business Standard recently reported that the Ministry of Defence
“will no longer ask French aircraft engine builder Snecma to help it in
resurrecting the indigenous Kaveri jet engine, which has reached a dead end in
development.” Clearly, despite the goodwill and the trust, joint or single
ventures are bound to face difficulties.
It is, however, worth mentioning an issue which has remained rather discreet,
but which is the oldest collaboration between India and France – cooperation in
space. During their discussions at Hyderabad House, President Hollande and Dr
Manmohan Singh mentioned: “The success of Megha-Tropiques satellite launch in
October 2011 and the upcoming SARAL satellite launch contribute significantly to
environmental and maritime survey purposes.” The SARAL satellite was
successfully launched on February 25 from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.
The maiden visit of President Hollande to Asia could be best described as more
than ordinary; it reveals a meaningful and trusted partnership. It does not mean
that the road will not be bumpy.