New Delhi: France has been the only country in the western world that has not criticised or urged India to take a similar stand to the US or Europe in the Russia-Ukraine war. Paris believes it can work more closely with New Delhi to “boost” its strategic autonomy and make India “more autonomous” in producing military equipment, according to Emmanuel Lenain, Ambassador of France to India.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, the French envoy said, France does not believe in giving “lectures” to India and understands the stand it has taken in the Russia-Ukraine war as a “close partner”. Lenain says Paris will work with New Delhi to get over some of the strategic “constraints” it is facing today.
“Our countries have their national position which is determined by our sovereign interest. We are not the kind of country that is going to lecture a close partner like India. We respect and we know that the stand it takes on such an important issue like this one has been determined through a process by outstanding professionals and given the country’s core interest,” Ambassador Lenain said referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month.
The Ambassador said, “We want to move forward together and we want to do as much as we can in a positive manner and there’s a lot to do and that’s what was discussed in Paris … When you make your position you try to manoeuvre with your constraints. So one of our goals, in the long run, is also to do whatever you can to diminish your constraints, to boost your strategic autonomy.”
He added, “We want to be the partner with India to boost your strategic autonomy to make India more autonomous in producing the equipment it needs for its security, but it’s a long-term endeavour but we are totally committed to that.”
Lenain also stressed that Prime Minister Modi and President Macron are one of those few world leaders who have had their channels of communication opened with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the war rages on.
“Our priority is to obtain the cessation of hostilities and to alleviate the plight of the population. PM Modi and President Macron are those few leaders who can really talk and were talking both to President Zelensky and President Putin,” he said, adding that the war has given rise to imbalances in food chains, and the risk of malnutrition and starvation.
‘Rafale, Scorpene achievements in bilateral ties’
With 35 out of the 36 Rafale fighter jets now with the Indian Air Force even as the last one is undergoing re-engineering, Lenain believes the time has come for more co-development and co-production and to make India an export hub.
“Rafale has been an outstanding programme despite Covid, we delivered all the planes — all 36. The last one is being re-engineered because it was used for training in the beginning, but it’s on schedule, on time. To serve the IAF French industries have been working extra shifts, days, nights and weekends to cope with the Covid lockdown. But we are perfectly on time and the user – Indian Air Force – seems to be totally satisfied,” he said.
In February this year with the arrival of three Rafale jets India completed the procurement of 35 fighters of the 36 it purchased based on a contract signed in September 2016 in France.
While France has delivered all 36 fighters to India, the IAF will decide when to ferry the jets to India depending on its training schedules and specifications.
More technology transfers on the anvil?
The French ambassador said no other country has invested so heavily in India’s defence market as France and has also taken offset obligations.
Offset is an obligation that an international defence player needs to take by way of supporting India’s defence industry since it is buying the items under an expensive contract.
“Next step is to fit in your policy of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and to do more co-development and more technology transfer, which means working together for the programme for the future, for aircraft engines and any sort of system or equipment so that you can develop in India, you can produce in India for your forces but also maybe to export. And why are we the best partner to do so?… We want to be the number one partner to do that,” said Lenain.
On the Scorpene submarine deal, the French ambassador said the joint production of all the six submarines under a complete transfer of technology between France’s Naval Group and Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) under Project-75, is “quite an achievement” for both countries. The sixth and the final submarine – Vagsheer – was launched last month.
The first of the P-75 submarines was commissioned into the Navy in December 2017 and presently four submarines of this Project are in commission in the Indian Navy. The sixth submarine will now commence setting to work of various equipment and their harbour trials, the Indian Navy said in a statement last month.
On the Scorpene submarine deal, the French ambassador said the joint production of all the six submarines under a complete transfer of technology, is “quite an achievement” for both countries.
“Scorpene is a good example of the work we have done together. It’s a great programme and the number six submarine has been put at sea. It is a great collaboration between the Naval Group and Mazagon Dock Ltd and I think it’s quite an achievement,” he said.
Earlier this month, on the eve of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to France the French conglomerate Naval Group walked out of the Indian Navy’s next big submarine project known as the Project-75(I) citing technical issues, particularly related to the air-independent propulsion (AIP) system.
“For the next steps it’s up to India to set its requirements and decide what sort of submarines, the numbers it wants, but obviously the Naval Group and all the French industries which are involved in the submarine programme are ready and willing to be partners in the next steps,” he said.
“There have been some discussions, some issuance of RFP (request for proposal) for the P-75(I), there have been some specific things about the limited part in the equipment, about AIP, certain requirements are very complex for most companies and not only for French companies but for any of the companies and there have been some thinking and discussions,” the envoy highlighted.
But he said the Naval Group will continue to remain invested in India and will explore more programmes.
“When India make its decisions and on which path it wants to go obviously Naval Group is there and willing to be as an investor to India, they will continue to invest in India as they believe they can bring a lot to India in terms of not only ‘Make in India’ but also in terms of autonomy and in terms of co-development,” he added.
‘AUKUS was breach of trust’
Despite the recent showdown between France and Australia over the Australia-UK-US trilateral military partnership, popularly called AUKUS, France said it remains deeply committed to the Indo-Pacific strategic conduct with India at its “core”.
“France has been the oldest Indo-Pacific driving force with India … AUKUS, obviously, was a major disappointment. It was a breach of trust but does it change our commitment? Not at all. Geography doesn’t change,” the French envoy said referring to the fact that France has over 2 million of its population residing in this region with thousands of troops stationed all across.
“We just think that the challenge posed by a certain country in the region is manifold and in order to be up and to tackle the issue we need to be broad.”
However, Lenain said, the India-Australia-France trilateral partnership which was announced in 2021 will not be moving ahead as of now.
“Regarding Australia, obviously now given the level of trust we cannot move on with the trilateral cooperation we envisaged. We will see, in the future, it might come back,” he said. He added that the new partner in lieu of Australia in this trilateral partnership can be the UAE.
France was the first member of the European Union to roll out its own Indo-Pacific policy even as China’s belligerence in the region began to increase. France is holding the Presidency of the European Union since January this year and it will conclude in June.
(Edited by: Manoj Ramachandran)