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Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, is supposed to have remarked that France is every man’s second country. India’s tryst with France has had to wait much past the late 18th century, but now, the two states seem to want to make up for lost time, and with gusto. In recent years, India has concluded multi-billion dollar purchases with France in the defence sector, from Scorpene submarines, civil nuclear cooperation, the Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal, and the most recent Surface to Air Missile development contract. Additionally, India’s Prime Minister was invited to France’s Bastille Day celebrations in 2009, as was French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day festivities. France has also supported India’s bid for permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council and is presently India’s largest supplier of nuclear fuel. The French government was also one of India’s strongest backers in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (in fact, French enthusiasm to welcome India into the nuclear club predates US intent) for a waiver on nuclear commerce with India and has expressed willingness to discuss even technology transfer.

The import of Indo-French relations is lost on most, perhaps because of France’s stature as a lesser power or because of its marginal footprint in the Anglophone sphere. The few who’ve considered stronger Indo-French ties have done so from the limited but admittedly important prism of security relations. A stable and mature  all-weather relationship, however, requires more than just a common enemy and advanced weapons sales to create. India and France have much to offer each other, and it would be a shame to see it lost in a purely strategic assessment.

Paris and New Delhi have been developing their relations quietly for many years. Even during the Cold War, French assistance to India in setting up a plutonium reprocessing plant and its association with Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was beyond what most states were willing to do. During the US arms embargo during the 1965 India-Pakistan War, France did not hesitate to provide spares for any French equipment the Indian Army used. The quiet opinion in French strategic circles has always supported India as a nuclear power, and French reaction to India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 was quietly congratulatory.

France frequently lost out to the Soviet Union in defence sales to India during the Cold War, largely due to political reasons, but had sold some AMX-13 light tanks, Alize, Ouragan, and Mystère aircraft, and Alouette helicopters to the South Asian nation in the late 1950s and 51 Mirage fighter jets in 1985. It was only from 1998, during the NDA government in India, that the relationship began to blossom with the changed economic climate. A series of high level visits between the two countries was matched by the establishment of various fora such as the Franco-Indian Initiative Forum, Strategic Dialogue, Annual Foreign Office Consultations, the Joint Working Group on Terrorism, the High Level Committee for Defence, and the Joint Committee for Economic and Technical Cooperation. The countries also began to hold joint air and naval exercises. Recently, more fora have been set up such as the Indo-French CEOs Forum and the Consortium of Indo-French Universities to further and deepen ties between the two states.

As the world’s 5th largest economy and one of the principal voices in the European Union, France makes for an excellent partner. Bilateral trade has gone up from around $1.2  billion in 1998 to just short of $9 billion in 2012. Though short of the $12-billion target set in 2008, the goals had not anticipated the international economic slowdown. There is enormous potential for both countries to invest in each other – India is a market with enormous potential for French goods and French technology in various fields can help India accelerate its own industries.

Currently, France is the 9th largest investor in India and India the 13th largest in France. Sectors that have seen the greatest investment from France are electrical equipment, services, telecommunications, transportation, fuels, chemicals, food processing, cement, and glass while Indian exports include largely raw materials such as garments, leather, textiles, cotton, rubber, dyes, and granite. Other areas in which India could welcome French investment would be small & medium enterprises, manufacturing, information technology, agriculture, environment, aeronautics, education, tourism, space, infrastructure, financial and retail markets, and life sciences. Small steps have been taken in many of these fields, but like everything else in India, implementation has been a tall hurdle. France may also serve as a gateway to Africa and the Francophone world for India.

In addition to defence, nuclear cooperation, and economics, a vibrant cultural exchange would help cement Indo-French relations. Both states are powerhouses in soft power – fashion, cuisine, and the arts will develop people-to-people ties as well as between the two governments and business houses.

What makes France an eminently suitable strategic partner for India – after all, any advanced economy could be a substitute for France were it only a matter of rupees and cents – is the similarity of the outlook both countries share, uncoerced. India’s stubborn non-alignment and France’s search for grandeur implicitly support a multi-polar world in which they would be two of the nodal points of power. Both Paris and New Delhi resented the bi-polar world order of the Cold War and frequently took intractable positions. France and India have always advocated a multilateral approach to crises such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The reaction in both capitals to the Non-Proliferation Treaty was similar, and despite France being designated as a nuclear weapons state, Paris did not sign the treaty until 1992. Neither the French nor the Indians would be pleased with a G-2 Chinamerica in the 21st century, and both see themselves from a larger civilisational perspective than most states do. In addition, French relations with India’s two bête noires is not warm.

What is also quite rare in international diplomacy between great powers is the lack of any serious strategic difficulties in an Indo-French relations. India’s other key partners – the US, Russia, Israel, and even Japan and Australia – have conflicting interests or diverge on morals with India on at least one or two key issues such as Iran, the NPT, or ballistic missile defence. While the French would rather that Iran not have nuclear weapons, previous behaviour indicates that it is not a hidebound ideological orthodoxy as is seen in non-proliferation circles but a practical assessment of the nature of the regime in power.

What is in it for the French? Beyond the astronomical market India represents in defence and industry, France would also benefit from India’s pool of highly skilled labour. France would do well to capitalise on India’s large knowledge base and contribute to enhancing it even further. A friendly and rising India increases the importance and influence of France on the global stage. Furthermore, as India takes on a larger role in international bodies, if history is any guide, its diplomatic clout will enhance French positions too. An important calculation that must have been made in Paris is that the returns on helping a state rise will be far higher than befriending a state that has already risen.

There are undoubtedly many mutual benefits to a close relationship with France. It would be a pity if it were limited primarily to the more glamorous sectors of defence, nuclear cooperation, export control regimes, and terrorism. It is rare that two states hold congruent political outlooks for so long, and it would be a shame for India to bungle this up as usual.

On a purely personal note, I’d also enjoy a little more Balzac and Rameau in the Indian public cacophony.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on February 18, 2013.