Narendra Modi in France: For true meaning of PM's visit, look beyond headlines on climate and terror

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just returned from his four-nation visit to Europe: Germany, Spain, Russia and France. Strictly speaking, Russia is a country belonging to Eurasia, as bulk of its territory lies in Asia. And India’s relations with Russia have been unique in more ways than one.

File image of Narendra Modi and Emmanuel Macron. PTI

File image of Narendra Modi and Emmanuel Macron. PTI

Germany is the most successful economy in Europe today and it is but natural that economic dimensions dominate the Delhi-Berlin ties. The prime minister’s visit to Spain underlined the potential of Spanish expertise in the fields of renewable energy, high-speed rail, infrastructure, tunneling, air space management and waste water management in Make in India, Smart Cities Mission, Digital India, Swachh Bharat, Start Up India, Skill India and other initiatives.

However, a special look at Modi’s visit to France is in order. Because, France, like Russia, has been a special friend of India. In fact, it has been a friend even during rough times. Therefore, the visit should be seen beyond the common resolve to fight terrorism and withstand climate change by protecting earth and its natural resources as per the Paris Agreement, to which almost the major countries are committed, save the United States under the Trump administration.

This is Modi's third visit to France in the last three years. In 2015, France was the first European country that Modi visited as prime minister. Last year, he was in Paris to attend the UN climate change conference. And this time, it was perhaps necessitated by his desire to meet the newly-elected French president Emmanuel Macron so that the ever-improving bilateral ties under his predecessors, including Francoise Hollande, remained on track.

All told, Macron, whose jump into the race for president was sudden and unexpected, had hardly revealed where he stood on foreign policy during the campaign — which in a way, was the case with Modi during the 2014 election — he focused mainly on domestic matters. Macron's foreign policy vision dealt with only his commitments to the European Union (EU) and NATO. And the only country he mentioned outside the EU was Russia, where he was critical of its alleged interference in the US presidential election.

However, French experts like Jean Luc Racine, senior CNRS fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies (EHESS) in Paris and Francoise Godement, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggest that French policy towards India under Macron will continue to be on upswing.


Their reason? Jean-Yves Le Drian, defence minister under former president Francoise Hollande, who was key to furthering France’s strategic partnerships across Asia in general and India in particular, has joined Macron's camp. In fact, Godement has noted that with Macron being a liberal on immigration and given his focus on innovation and education, it would help Indian students who want to seek higher education in France, especially at a time when things are becoming more difficult for aspirants in countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia.

Bilateral ties between India and France have grown steadily: From €5.13 billion in 2006 to €8.5 billion in 2015. France is the ninth largest foreign investor in India. Today, more than 1,000 French companies across a wide range of sectors in India and employ around 3 lakh people. Around 75 Indian companies operate in France, employing around 7,000 people.

According to French Directorate-General of the Treasury (DGT), France recorded its lowest trade deficit with India for the first nine months of 2016, which was -€837 million versus -€2.2 billion in 2015.  French exports amounted to €3.2 billion in 2015 and imports from India increased to €5.4 billion, thereby reducing our trade deficit by 12.7%.

In 1998, France was also the first country with which India established a strategic partnership, which has since been accorded to more than 30 countries. This special relationship has always centered around three crucial areas: Nuclear, space and defence. Following India’s peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, the United States and Canada terminated their nuclear engagements with India, but France supplied us with fuel for the Tarapur nuclear plant. Similarly, when the United States and others imposed sanctions on India after the nuclear tests in May 1998, France proved the exception. In fact, the then French president Jacques Chirac publicly supported New Delhi and opposed US sanctions.

Soon after the India-specific waiver was granted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in September 2008 to engage in civil nuclear trade, France was the first country to sign a civil nuclear agreement with India, even before the US Senate had approved the India-US nuclear agreement.

When the NSG later declared that it would not supply enrichment and reprocessing technology to countries that were non-signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, France declared that its bilateral nuclear cooperation with India would not be affected. Although the US played the most important role in granting India the NSG waiver, it was the French companies that outdid their American counterparts when entering India’s nuclear market.


France has decided to construct six EPR (nuclear reactors) of 1,600 MW each in India. Equally important, cooperation between the regulatory agencies in both countries, the French ASN and the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, have been stepped up. Scientists from both countries are working together at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu and sharing knowledge of a new prototype. Another area of cooperation has been the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) at Cadarache, France where a team of Indian scientists have been since 2007.

India-French cooperation in space technology has not been publicised the way it should have been. It began nearly 60 years ago, when France provided India the technology to start producing the Centaure sounding rockets domestically. The first Indian Satellite Telecommunication Experimental Project (STEP) was undertaken during the 1970s by using the French satellite Symphonie; it was followed by Ariane launching the Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE).

In fact, Arianespace was the preferred agency for launching large Indian satellites, particularly the INSAT and GSAT series. And now that India has developed its independent launch capabilities, French organizations like EADS Astrium and Indian commercial arm Antrix have found it mutually beneficial to work to market Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle capabilities together in the West.

Though defence cooperation between the two countries goes back to 1950s and 60s — in the 50s France had provided 104 Ouragan aircraft to the Indian Air Force, rechristened “toofani” by India — the decision to embark on a strategic partnership in 1998 led to the establishment of a High Committee on Defence Cooperation. This forum promotes political dialogue and high-level military consultations between officials, cooperation between armed forces through exchanges and joint exercises, and long-term partnerships between Indian and French entities in the field of armaments industry.

France was the first country with which India conducted a joint naval exercise called 'Varun' after the 1998 nuclear tests; our two countries have continued to hold this exercise over the years. Similarly, the IAF’s first bilateral exercise in 2003 with a foreign counterpart, 'Garuda I', was once again with the French Air Force.

France’s steadfastness as a military ally contrasts strongly with that of the United States, which has not been the most reliable supplier of military items and technologies. It vetoed or slowed components for the Light Combat Aircraft that India is developing and imposed an arms embargo on India following the 1998 nuclear tests.

There are similar apprehensions about Germany's reliability as a partner, as under German law, delivery of weapons and spare parts are prohibited to a country at war. All this explains why India is not only procuring the Rafale fighter aircraft from France, but is also going ahead with three other defence projects with France: Rs 50,000-crore for six Scorpene submarines, nearly Rs 15,000-crore upgrade for 51 Mirage-2000s and about Rs 10,000-crore acquisition of 490 MICA missile systems.

There is what is called the middle powers congruence between New Delhi and Paris as both India and France have valued their respective “strategic autonomy”. France has never been a blind supporter of the United States, even though it is a member of the US-led NATO.

Modi’s latest visit to France has strengthened this congruence further, which, indeed, is more important than what the limited headlines on terrorism and climate deal might suggest.


Published Date: Jun 04, 2017 04:38 pm | Updated Date: Jun 04, 2017 04:38 pm



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