New Delhi: On Thursday, when French President Emmanuel Macron backed India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir, reiterating Paris’ long-standing position of no third-party mediation on the issue, it was seen as a new dawn for the relationship between the two countries.
Only, Macron’s remarks, at a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Paris, aren’t unprecedented for the ties between the two countries.
The French have historically stood by India, even on a number of contentious issues, such as backing the 1998 Pokhran tests and being among the first countries to sign a civil nuclear pact with New Delhi. From championing counter-terrorism measures, ensuring defence and nuclear energy cooperation to collaborating in the space and cybersecurity sectors, India and France have remained firm friends for over two decades.
The ties seem all the more pronounced now given the unpredictability of US President Donald Trump and wavering of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
“France has stood beside India over decades despite geopolitical changes. This is a friction-free relationship,” said Mohan Kumar, chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS).
“France remains the only country among the P-5 nations that has downgraded its relationship with Pakistan. So, they have clearly aligned themselves with India as their dominant ally in the South Asian region.”
Kumar, a veteran diplomat who was also the former Indian Ambassador to France, said the ties between New Delhi and Paris are only poised to become deeper as far as cooperation in maritime security is concerned within the Indian Ocean, which will be seen as an outcome of Modi’s personal rapport with Macron.
On India’s side in 1998
One of the most prominent instances of France solidly backing India came back in May 1998 when New Delhi conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran. France was the only country among the P-5 nations to defy the US-led sanctions and stand by India.
Then French President Jacques Chirac publicly supported the move and said he rejected the US actions, whose sanctions severed all kinds of aid, barring humanitarian assistance, to New Delhi.
In fact, four months before the Pokhran tests, Chirac had visited India with a high-powered delegation in January 1998.
“It is due to this immense and out of the way support by France that both sides began a strategic dialogue between themselves,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who was the Indian Ambassador to France between 1998 and 2002.
Of late, France has been instrumental in the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist in the UNSC 1267 Sanctions Committee in May. Paris had been pursuing it at the UN relentlessly since the 14 February terror attacks in Pulwama.
France also led the initiative for the implementation of the Christchurch Call to Action to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist online content adopted in Paris last May.
Both Modi and Macron also stressed on the need to urgently adopt the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), which was proposed by India in 1996 but which has been lying in limbo due to opposition from the US and others.
In terms of defence cooperation, ties with France have stood the test of time. The Indian Air Force continues to rely on the French Mirage and is now looking forward to the delivery of the Rafale warplanes. The first batch of the fighter aircraft will be delivered by next month, something that Macron had assured Modi Thursday.
The deal to acquire 36 Rafale fighter jets from Dassault Aviation SA was signed as part of an inter-governmental agreement between Prime Minister Modi and Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande in 2015 when New Delhi decided to procure the fighter jets in a fly-away condition.
France now expects India to place a follow-up order to buy 100 more Rafale jets in order to be able to manufacture the aircraft here. France is also involved in building six Scorpene-class submarines for India in the last two decades under the Indian Navy’s Project 75 programme. French defence major Naval Group has been engaged in this collaboration with Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd, under a transfer of technology arrangement since 2005.
France has expressed hopes to be involved in India’s future submarine programmes as well.
Nuclear energy partnership
In September 2008, when India was granted a waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), technically allowing New Delhi to go all guns blazing on civil nuclear trade, it was France that once again stood out. It was the first country to sign a civil nuclear pact with New Delhi — the deal was signed between former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.
The Indo-French cooperation on ‘peaceful use of nuclear energy’ was signed on 30 September 2008, with the objective of establishing the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant.
The 9,900 MW power plant, once established and commissioned, is expected to become the biggest nuclear plant in the country with six nuclear reactors of 1,650 MW each. Despite being signed in 2008, however, the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant did not take off mainly due to pricing issues and fierce protests by the locals there.
While land acquisition for setting up the six nuclear reactors, or European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs) has been completed, the challenge of pricing in terms of cost per unit of the electricity to be generated from there, remains. French company Areva is to set up the six nuclear reactors, which is negotiating the commercial terms with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL).
According to Sibal, compared to Russia’s Kudankulam Nuclear Plant, the cost per unit to be charged by Jaitapur is not working out, but both sides are continuing to have negotiations on this.
India also owes a lot to France as far as its successful strides in space are concerned.
“Today, if ISRO is able to launch Chandrayaan, it is due to France’s steadfast support for India’s space missions and programmes,” said Kumar. “We definitely owe a debt of gratitude to France for their cooperation in space.”
As an example of a thriving diplomatic relationship, French presidents have also been the chief guests of India’s Republic Day Parade for the maximum number of times.
Trade and investment challenges
Business ties, particularly two-way trade, continues to be the only negative aspect of the relationship; they remain stagnant at 10 billion Euros. Both Modi and Macron did admit to the fact Thursday and jointly decided to set up a high-level France-India economic and financial dialogue.
It also needs to be noted here that France was one of the countries that proved to be a major hurdle for India in concluding the free trade agreement, also called the Broad-Based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) with the European Union, because the French wanted India to lower tariffs for their wine and spirits and dairy products.