January 20, 2008

Why France matters to India ?


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Claude Arpi is an expert on the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He was born in Angoulême, France. After graduating from Bordeaux University in 1974, he decided to live in India and settled in the South where he is still staying with his Indian wife and young daughter. He is the author of numerous English and French books including ‘The Fate of Tibet,’ ‘La Politique Française de Nehru: 1947-1954,’ ‘Born in Sin: the Panchsheel Agreement’ and ‘India and Her Neighbourhood.’ He writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. In this exclusive column, he says France has a clear role to play in India.
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As the protocol section of the Ministry of External Affairs goes frantic over whether to accord the French President’s companion Carla Bruni the status of the First Lady or that of a special invitee for the Republic Day jamboree, it is perhaps time to examine Indo-French relations through a wider prism.

During his campaign in May, the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy had promised to reenergise old France. Will he be able to perform the same feat for Indo-French relations? To answer this question, it is necessary to put the visit into a historical perspective.

Remnants of the colonial set up deeply affected the relations between France and India for years. In January 1947, when the French government asked for a 10-year extension of the 1945 agreement permitting military air ferries to fly across India, Nehru, the then Interim prime minister was quick to point out: “Public opinion in India is very much against the use of force by the French government against the people of Indochina and anything which we do to facilitate the use of this force is bound to be resented and vigorously criticised.”

On August 15, 1947, the British left the subcontinent; they hence became the example, while the French –and the Portuguese-- became the villains for still clinging to their ‘possessions’ in India.

In Paris, successive French governments were too weak to take any drastic decisions. Paris also worried about creating a wrong precedent for its other colonies in Indo-China and North Africa. This negatively affected the relations between India and France during the first years after Independence.



However, there is another side to the coin. The dubious role played by the British in the Kashmir issue, and the ‘emotional’ influences on the first Prime Minister are well known.

France had a more balanced approach (for her own reasons and interests) on Kashmir. When the Kashmir case came to the UN Security Council in January 1948, French foreign minister George Bidault instructed to his representative in the UN: “Concerning Hindustan, we are trying our best to go slow on the Hindus’ susceptibilities; we have done this during the last sessions of the UN General Assembly. I will add that the necessity to maintain essential contacts between France and our expeditionary army in Indochina puts us in the obligation to ask for permission for our planes to fly over India. These are the reasons which should not be forgotten during our intervention in the [Kashmir] debate.”

But though showing more understanding, France ultimately voted on the lines of the Western powers.

An interesting development occurred around the same time.

“Anxious to help in every way in developing atomic energy in India,” Nehru unofficially sent Homi Bhabha abroad to examine the possibility of collaboration for the peaceful use of atomic energy. “In view of the fact that India possesses very large resources of minerals suitable for the generation of atomic power, India is destined to play an important part in research on atomic energy in cooperation with other countries. We would like to welcome this cooperation, more specially in Great Britain, Canada and France,” said Nehru.

Bhabha had extremely cordial contacts with Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Raoul Dautry, the first heads of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), founded by de Gaulle in 1945. At that time, Joliot-Curie was interested by two materials: beryllium and thorium.

But while pushing for the ‘Atom for Peace’ program, Nehru saw the nuclear collaboration as discriminatory. Why should countries with colonial territories use raw material looted from these colonies for their research, he asked.

Today, ‘discrimination’ is still a major issue in the nuclear negotiations between the West and Delhi.

During the first decades after Independence, Paris’s approach towards India was businesslike and restricted to arms sales. To give an example, though the Indian Air Force did not directly take part in the conflict with China, 49 French Ouragan fighter planes, 110 Mystère and 12 Alizée planes were in service in 1962. Further, 150 AMX 13 light tanks were sold to India after an agreement signed in 1957.

On September 22, 1962, General Charles de Gaulle received Nehru in Paris. Nehru first congratulated him for the settlement of the Algerian crisis as well as the ratification of the cession of the French Establishments in India. At the end of the meeting, Nehru pointed out the danger coming from China “which spent most of its resources for preparing the bomb...”


“ …It is for them a question of prestige” explained a clearly worried Indian Prime Minister. Four weeks later, the Chinese attacked India.

In the 1960s, the French government’s ‘independent’ attitude was in many ways similar to the one advocated by Nehru, minus of course, the Force de frappe (nuclear strike force). This did not, however, translate into a significant improvement in bilateral relations.

While the ‘commercial’ attitude of the French government was not always appreciated by its Western allies, it enhanced France’s image in Delhi as a reliable Western ‘friend’. During a debate in the UN Security Council after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, the French representative declared: “We appreciate the fact that India cannot feel satisfied with a superficial solution when it has millions of refugees under its care”.

The Indian Official Report of the 1971 War stated that although the UK and France were both allies of the United States, “they did not toe the American line.”

The ‘businesslike’ relations extended to the Indian and French intelligence agencies. It is said that R&AW Chief RN Kao travelled to Paris to meet his counterpart Alexandre de Marenches to set up a tripartite collaboration between the R&AW, the French SDECE and the Iranian SAVAC.


But it was only in January 1998 that a tremendous boost in bilateral relations was given by president Chirac’s visits to India and former prime minister Vajpayee’s trip to Paris later that year. In an article titled ‘Returns from the French Connection,’ The Indian Express commented: “Chirac during his visit made clear that France is willing to work at a reinterpretation of the requirements of the NPT. Without breaching its NPT commitments, France is willing to show flexibility on safeguards, provided India displays a certain amount of ‘give’ on the kind of controls it is willing to accept.”

Ten years later, similar language is likely to be used by President Sarkozy when he visits Delhi. Chirac’s words were not mere political niceties. When India conducted its nuclear tests in Pokhran in May, France was one of the few countries which did not condemn Delhi (or impose sanctions). This was greatly appreciated in Delhi.

From the friendship mentioned by de Gaulle, the relation has become a partnership, which now has several institutional structures.

A Strategic Dialogue at the level of National Security Advisors provides both sides an opportunity to review the evolution of the overall global security situation (17 rounds have been held so far). A High Level Committee for Defence at the level of defence secretaries works through its three specialised sub-committees, dealing with issues related to defence cooperation.

A Joint Working Group on Terrorism has been established to cooperate in the fight against terrorism

Today, apart from the unexpected and very unfortunate cancellation of the order for the Fennec Eurocopters, no major political differences darken the sky between Paris and Delhi. France has been supportive of India’s quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and has shown its comprehension in the nuclear domain.

Ali Yavar Jung, the Indian ambassador in France, had told de Gaulle in November 1962 that France “had the advantage, in India’s eyes, to be economically and financially strong and at the same time, had level-headed policies, and can not be a compromising power like the Soviet Union and the US.”

But despite maintaining ‘privileged’ relations, Delhi and Paris stay short of engaging further. There is a French word which characterises perfectly the bilateral relations: frilosité. While the dictionary translates it as ‘overcautiousness’ or ‘oversensibility to cold’, it can also be translated as ‘the absence of boldness’.

Before the 1989 Mitterrand visit, ,Le Monde quoted an Indian businessman dealing with France: “You are able to demonstrate true solidarity [with India]; sometimes strike great commercial ‘coups’, but between these sudden initiatives, you don’t work, you let the links loosen. This is the quality and the flaw of the French. It is true in the economic field and also on the politic one. Friendship or partnership, you have to look after it”. Nineteen years later, those words still ring true.

The world has gone a long way since the days of Homi Bhabha and Joliot-Curie, but the civilian use of atomic energy is certainly an area where France and India can meaningfully collaborate.

During his recent visit to India, Bernard Kouchner, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that he was keen on having a pact with India in this field: “We are in favour of a future bilateral agreement on nuclear civil power, [though we] realise that we have to wait till India gets the concurrence of bodies like the IAEA.”

Other fields is which collaboration are most likely to expand are joint-ventures and delocalisation. Airbus partially delocalised its production to China, why not in India?

France has a clear role to play in India, but will Paris be bold enough to seize the moment?

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