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Reimagining the French connection: a new chapter in India-France partnership

Having been unable to persuade France to part with its manufacturing and technical expertise in earlier sojourns, PM Modi will have to ensure that his visit this week heralds the start of unprecedented industrial and technological cooperation

Reimagining the French connection: a new chapter in India-France partnership

French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to PM Narendra Modi to be the Guest of Honour at the Bastille Day parade offers a chance to focus on specific areas of partnership.



Sandeep Dikshit

For the second time in nearly 15 years, an Indian Prime Minister will be the Guest of Honour at the French Bastille Day parade on July 14. Broken down in its simplest form, the Bastille Day parade is a tradition of soldiers marching down Avenue des Champs-Élysées. But it has been infused with deep symbolism ever since Paris emerged from the conquest by the Germans in the Second World War. In 2010, troops from several former French African colonies’ armed forces joined the parade to celebrate 50 years of Independence. In 2019, 70 years of NATO was celebrated with the presence of six world leaders, including then German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A measure of comfort

  • India and France have enjoyed mutual compatibility despite global upheavals. The turning point in the otherwise warm ties came in 1998 when France declined to join the US-led bandwagon for sanctioning India for its nuclear tests.
  • While London played more loyal than the master by seizing Indian Navy’s Sea King helicopters because they contained American components, France went ahead with the joint naval exercises with India and carried on as if it was business as usual.
  • This year, France played an important role in ensuring that the Indian Navy has a ringside view of the state of play in the Arabian Gulf.
  • With a base in Abu Dhabi and another in Djibouti, the French are well ensconced in the region.
  • By inviting India to join the European Union’s naval monitoring mission in the Persian Gulf, it facilitated India’s entry into the Multinational Task Force based in Bahrain.
  • India and France have also been enthusiastic about developing trilaterals with UAE, Australia and West African countries.
  • There are two areas where trust has deepened. One is France’s decades-long position on Kashmir where it feels that India’s dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir is sometimes used by Islamabad as a pretext for destabilising actions in Kashmir. The second is strategic autonomy, the underpinning of foreign policies of both France and India.

In 2009, Dr Manmohan Singh was the first Indian premier to stand by the side of French President Nicolas Sarkozy as jawans of the Maratha Light Infantry along with their compatriots from the Navy and the Air Force marched to an Indian military band playing ‘Saare Jahan Se Achchha’ and ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’. This Friday, the Indian military turnout will consist of soldiers from Punjab Regiment, along with the other two services. The medley of songs is expected to be unchanged.

What has also remained unchanged is the significance of both the years when the Indian PMs were invited for the Bastille Day parade. When Dr Singh was invited, the Indo-US nuclear agreement was seen as India’s coming out party, as the West had shed its inhibitions about cohabiting with a nuclear-armed India. From the French point of view, the mega contract for Scorpene submarines was in full swing and orders for fighter jets were on the horizon.

The year 2023 is a redux, and not just for the riots in French towns that took place in 2009 as well. India, led by PM Narendra Modi, has a lightness of foot and eagerness of purpose and is being feted in foreign countries, most notably the lavish state visit to the White House, and on the margins of every G7 summit. This time, the French lost out on the submarine contract to the Germans but feel they are the frontrunners as India prepares to acquire fighter jets for its Navy and Air Force.

The French military though has hovered in the Indian subcontinent since the late 18th century. A French General from the beach town of Saint Tropez helped raise an elite section of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. With their enclaves in Puducherry, Chandannagar, Karikal, Mahe and Yanaon, the French participated in several local wars by aligning with chieftains as they sought to push back the British, their alliances with Tipu Sultan and the Scindias of Gwalior being the most notable.

Modern-day France has had an equally enduring military relationship with Independent India. It was exactly 70 years ago in 1953 that Dassault signed its maiden agreement with India for supplying the Toofan/Ouragan aircraft. Since then, there have been Dassault aircraft in the IAF inventory uninterruptedly.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has held several rounds of meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron’s Diplomatic Adviser Emmanuel Bonne over the past four years to bring more to the table than just the sale of French military hardware. What India needs is more licensed production and technology transfer. The popular impression is that Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, may have nutmegged the Indians by palming off 36 Rafale fighters instead of a much large number, along with the technology transfer that India was seeking.

The excuse from the South Block was that a set of modern fighters was urgently required to meet the China threat. As yet, there is no evidence that two squadrons of Rafale played a dissuasive role in the confrontations that developed after 2020. The Doval-Bonne talks, and an energetic Ambassador Jawed Ashraf in Paris who has the PMO’s ear, are attempting to make a breakthrough in persuading French engine-manufacturing legend Safran to do a GE — set up a manufacturing plant with ample technology transfer. Both sides are also believed to be narrowing in on specific areas of partnership in hi-tech, specifically civilian nuclear energy, space and cybersecurity.

Having been unable to persuade France to part with its manufacturing and technical expertise in earlier sojourns, PM Modi will have to ensure that his visit heralds the start of unprecedented industrial and technological cooperation involving the training of young Indian engineers and technicians.

The French also need to turn generous. Its major industrial groups, including Dassault, Eurocopter, MBDA, Nexter, Safran and Thales, have been welcomed with open arms in several Indian civilian infrastructure systems. Much like the American IT giants, they have carved footholds that guarantee them a good churn in revenues in India.

But France’s usefulness extends beyond India becoming a recipient of hi-tech products. France is a major player in the Indo-Pacific, having retained territories since colonial time. After the project to set up networked listening stations with Iran and India collapsed with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, India and France are picking up the threads of coordinated naval activity.

India also needs French counselling as it strikes partnerships with island nations in the Indo-Pacific that were once under Paris’ colonial rule. Indian defence ties with the four ‘Vanilla Island’ nations in the Indian Ocean — Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles — are crucial as a chain of defence. Though the French have ample bases, they would not mind a helping hand from a country with which it has strategic trust and decent reserves of naval firepower.

As Indian defence planners go about beefing the Andaman and Nicobar Command, they keep close tabs on the special French forces that are capable of first entry in a theatre of operations with an impressive 20,000 troops backed by an awesome armada of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and all manner of offensive equipment.

However, as was the case with the US, French liberals are not pleased with the Modi visit. Much like Ashley Tellis in the US, French Indophile Christopher Jaffrelot has questioned the red carpet to PM Modi as he feels India has turned into an autocratic democracy which is trampling human rights. But in an ironical twist of fate, the riots in France display many of the illiberal tendencies and the rot within the Fifth Republic. Jaffrelot would have revised the article he wrote for Le Monde had Macron spoken sooner on banning the Internet or seen the video of the brutal arrest of a youngster afflicted with Down’s Syndrome.

The West has usually applied human rights criticism at a diplomatic level to cow the other side down and extract concessions not readily available. It is now clear that India as a country with immense consumption power will never be ignored by the West for the economic potential it provides. The Biden administration might have given a wink and a nod to anti-India lobbies during PM Modi’s state visit. The French are, however, more Catholic and for India, the bugbear of human rights will not even be an irritant in Paris when PM Modi attends the Bastille Day parade. 


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