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Boosting ties with France The Statesman 18 Jul 2023
France was recovering from riots which lashed the nation following the killing of Nahel Merzouk a 17-year-old youth of Moroccan and Algerian descent by the police at a traffic stop. India refused to comment stating it was an internal matter of France. Simultaneously the European parliament discussed Manipur riots. Christian groups forming part of the European parliament believed that these were initiated to target the Christian Kuki community, ignoring the fact that even Christian Meitei’s were attacked by rival Kuki groups. It issued a statement demanding India protect its minorities.
The French government neither commented on Manipur nor the European Parliament statement. The Indian government rejected the comments terming them as ‘interference in India’s internal matters.’ The NATO summit had just concluded, where members, while displaying solidarity with Ukraine, refused to give a timeline for its admission. It was at this juncture that PM Modi visited Paris as guest of honour for the French National Day, also termed as Bastille Day. The visit marked 25 years of Indo-France strategic partnership.
The Indian army contingent which marched down the Champs-Élysées, on the occasion of Bastille Day was from the Punjab Regiment, which had earned the battle honour ‘France and Flanders’ for its participation in the offensive near Neuve Chapelle in France in September 1915. Also participating were four Rafale aircraft which India had recently acquired from France. INS Chennai, an indigenously built destroyer, berthed in Brest, France from 12–16 Jul. The ship’s crew represented India at the Bastille Day celebrations in Brest. The symbolism of Indo-French defence ties, which developed over the years, was not missed.
While India’s relations with the rest of Europe are largely based on trade, with France they are more linked to defence cooperation, with trade touching just USD 11 billion. Currently, France is India’s second largest defence supplier providing 29% of its defence imports. It was during his visit to Paris in Apr 2015 that PM Modi signed the deal for 36 Rafale aircraft for the Indian Air Force.
France also has a sizeable presence in the Indian Ocean with bases in the Reunion Islands, Mayotte, Djibouti and Abu Dhabi. Over 90% of its Exclusive Economic Zone is in this region. Hence freedom of movement in the Indian Ocean is equally important for France. Indo-French naval exercises are an ongoing feature. For India, maritime collaboration with France implies cooperation in the Arabian Sea, as against in the Indo-Pacific with the QUAD.
India would have also gauged France’s perceptions on China, with whom Paris’s trade is in excess of USD 80 billion. Post his visit to Beijing in April this year, Macron stated that Europe must adopt ‘strategic autonomy’ and avoid being dragged into a US-China confrontation. He had added that Europe faces great risk if it ‘gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.’ He was hinting on Taiwan. His comments were welcomed by Beijing.
As soon as Macron’s aircraft departed Beijing, China launched exercises around Taiwan as retaliation to the honour bestowed on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, during her stopover in the US. It had held them back intending to gain French support and Macron did not disappoint. India is a member of the QUAD, which is combining to contain Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific while facing a standoff along its northern borders.
India is home to over 700 French companies with investments exceeding 11 billion Euros. Indian investments in France are barely 200 million Euros with 50 companies involved. However, recent and possible forthcoming orders from Indigo and Air India of Airbus aircraft provide increased employment in France. Another aspect of cooperation is climate change, especially as it concerns the artic.
Cementing the friendship, French President Emmanuel Macron bestowed the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor on PM Modi. It is the highest French honour. For France, ‘India is one of the pillars of our Indo-Pacific strategy.’ At the end of a successful visit India and France issued a horizon 2047 document, setting a roadmap for the future. It specifically mentioned ‘their commitment to a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.’
On defence, the document was fairly specific. It stated, ‘India and France are committed to cooperating in the co-development and co-production of advanced defence technologies, including for the benefit of third countries.’ This implied that products developed jointly could be offered to other countries, on similar lines as the Brahmos missiles.
It also covered joint development of a combat aircraft engine and ‘motorization of heavy-lift helicopters’ under the Indian Multi Role Helicopter programme. These will be in collaboration between HAL and Safran France with 100% transfer of technology. Safran would be establishing its facility in Bengaluru.
There was no mention of Rafale M or Scorpene submarines for the navy. It is possible that mentioning them now, without price negotiations, could be politically exploited in India, as it happened with the Predator deal with the US. Dassault, the manufacturer of Rafale put out a press release stating that India has selected their aircraft.
The icing on the cake was France accepting the Indian UPI platform. This implies Indian tourists would be able to pay in Rupees in France. In one move, India has challenged global leaders MasterCard and Visa by its UPI. With the Indian Rupee gaining a foothold in France, it is a matter of time before this is accepted by the rest of Europe.
France and India have been allies for long. Historically France has stood by India when needed. Both nations are part of multiple trilaterals including India-France-Australia and India-France-UAE. There is increased cooperation in the maritime domain and climate change. Both have adopted strategic autonomy in their foreign policies, are middle powers seeking multipolarity and have shared interests in the Indo-Pacific, Arabian Sea and Africa. India seeks to champion the cause of the global south, while France faces challenges in its former African colonies.
For India, France is a trusted partner in diplomatic, military and nuclear sectors. For France, India is a partner in the Arabian Sea, climate change, trade and defence sectors. The two middle powers together can work towards creating a multipolar world.