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Home > News > Columnists > Claude Arpi

France's Hyper President comes calling

January 24, 2008

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Diplomatically, January is a busy month. The Indian prime minister went to China, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was in India this week while French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be the guest of honour for Republic Day.

The French media has coined a term for the new French head of State: the 'Hyper President'. This is probably due to his hyperactive life as President and man; he was elected in May 2007 after he promised to take a new look at the presidency and re-energise old France [Images], which is what he has strenuously been trying to do.

Will he be able to perform the same feat for Indo-French relations is a question on many observers' mind.

Let us go back for a moment to the past.

Hardly a month after the 1962 Chinese attack on the slopes of NEFA, the Indian ambassador to France, Ali Javar Jung, had an audience with President Charles de Gaulle in Paris. Nehru had asked his ambassador to thank the general for his support. A few days earlier, de Gaulle had written to Nehru: 'We cannot approve that border claims are settled by military actions which is in any case disproportionate with the proclaimed objectives (of the Chinese).'

During this encounter with the Indian ambassador, the general conveyed to him what would be the core of the French position for several decades. He told Jung: 'France is the friend of India, not its ally, and therefore will not provide any (direct military) support.' Paris was, however, prepared to provide military supplies to Delhi (and this in consultation with the US).

For India, the war marked (at least temporarily) a U-turn in its foreign policy. The Indian ambassador admitted to de Gaulle: 'It throws the entire non-aligned policy of India back into question.'

This could have been an opportunity for France and India to forge a deeper relationship. But it was not to be the case. In the years to come, Delhi would remain 'non-aligned' while leaning on the Soviet Union. In the meantime, de Gaulle had started looking eastward; he sent one of his ministers, Edgar Faure, to visit the Middle Kingdom and soon after he recognised Mao's regime.

The Americans were deeply unhappy. Chester Bowles, the new US ambassador in Delhi, told the Secretary of State: 'Recognition is primarily (an) act demonstrating French independence of American control in foreign affairs.' And he added: 'No concession or bribe of any kind will affect de Gaulle's attitude or policies.'

This 'independent' attitude of the French government was in many ways similar to the one advocated by Nehru, minus of course the Force de Frappe (nuclear strike force). Unfortunately for the two nations, the similarity did not translate into a significant improvement in their relations.

During the following decades, the relationship was mostly 'commercial', but France and India remained just 'friends'. To give an idea of the scale, between 1963 and 1971, France was India's third largest arms supplier. The total arms transfer reached $323 million while the tally of the Soviet Union touched $7,100 million (and $76 million for the US).

A couple of months after Indira Gandhi [Images] was assassinated, a 'spy scandal, the most serious ever', as per then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, made it to the front pages. While the KGB and CIA were investing millions of dollars (remember the shocking facts quoted in the Mitrokhin Archives), France 'was buying secrets for a song', as Time magazine put it. French intelligence officers, led by one Colonel Bolley, used to visit the Prime Minister's Office, select thousands of documents and take photocopies of whatever files interested them. The French ambassador was eventually declared persona non grata and given 48 hours to leave the country.

The Hindustan Times wrote that the extent of the scam 'staggered the imagination of investigating officials'. This did not hamper India's collaboration with France (particularly for an important Mirage deal). Before President Mitterrand's visit in 1989, Le Monde acknowledged that Rajiv Gandhi 'had forgiven' France.

But far more damaging for bilateral relations was Paris's ambivalent relations with Pakistan. The equidistance kept by France between India and Pakistan will remain a serious bone of contention between Delhi and Paris during the next two decades.

In February 1989, on the eve of then president Francois Mitterrand's visit to Pakistan (a month earlier, he had come to New Delhi), Le Monde's correspondent wrote: 'Paris is trying to keep a certain balance in its relations between Islamabad and New Delhi. Still today, our regional policy is a sensitive issue due to the exacerbated susceptibilities between India and Pakistan.'

In the 1990s, with economic liberalisation, India's efforts focused on making the local economy more vibrant; the percentage of defence expenditure came down from a maximum of 4 per cent in the 1980s to less than 3 per cent (2.6 per cent in 1996 and 2004) and arms transfers decreased accordingly.

The most interesting aspect of the 1990s was the tremendous boost in bilateral relations given by the visits of then president Jacques Chirac in January 1998 and then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's trip to Paris later that year.

The most striking feature was the setting up of a framework for strategic partnership. As he arrived in India, the French president saluted 'a nation which has affirmed its personality on the world stage'. He said he had come to show that 'France wanted to accompany India in its potent march (towards the future).' India had begun to be acknowledged as an equal partner.

Inaugurating a seminar at the Vigyan Bhavan, the French president spoke of a possible nuclear deal. Acknowledging that 'certain conditions are to be met', he, however, suggested to 'reflect, together with those of our partners involved, on the ways to reconcile our common will to cooperate and the necessary respect for the rules the international community has set itself'. Nine years later, a similar language could be used by President Sarkozy.

Chirac's words were not mere political niceties. When India conducted its nuclear tests in May 1998, France was one of the few countries which did not condemn New Delhi (or impose sanctions). This was greatly appreciated in Delhi, and when Prime Minister Vajpayee returned Chirac's visit in October, the Indian prime minister told the press: 'Both countries share a perspective that the new world order has to be a genuine multi-polar world order. Our bilateral relationship is poised to grow in the coming months in a multi-faceted manner.'

These events set in motion a closer collaboration. From the friendship mentioned by de Gaulle, the relation had become a partnership. By putting proper structures in place, the dialogue was institutionalised.

Though President Chirac's visit to India in February 2006 was marred by the Clemenceau controversy, it further cemented the close relations between the two nations. Will the visit of the French Hyper President take Indo-French relations to new heights?

No major political differences darken the sky between Paris and Delhi today except, of course, the unexpected cancellation of the order for Fennec Eurocopter choppers.

France has constantly been supportive of India, particularly its quest for a permanent seat in the Security Council, and has shown its comprehension in the nuclear domain. The collaboration could however be more meaningful. The strategic partnership instituted in 1998 has in recent years been devalued by the multiplication of such accords with all and sundry. There is no doubt that further innovative steps need to be taken to sustain the 1998 momentum.

An issue which seems to hamper the development of a deeper partnership with Paris is Delhi's sudden closeness with the Bush administration, to the exclusion of other partnerships. There would be nothing wrong in this proximity if it did not get in the way of India's relations with other countries.

Let us not forget that the US boycotted India and slammed heavy sanctions on its economy while Paris stood by Delhi in May 1998. This seems to be forgotten as soon as an Indian leader receives a pat on the shoulder from the US president.

In the past, France's India policy has been dependent on many external factors: French colonial past in Indochina and Africa; General de Gaulle's 'discovery' of China; Paris's alliance with other Western powers; equidistance between Delhi and Islamabad etc; but Paris has turned a page since then.

President Sarkozy's visit seems to have been better prepared, given the recent trips of the French army and naval chiefs and the visit of Bernard Kouchner, the foreign affairs minister. Sarkozy, very popular in India for his multifaceted dynamism, should further boost relations.

France has many cards in her hand: one considerable advantage of closer Indo-French collaboration (particularly in the nuclear field) would be that it could have the broad agreement of the entire political spectrum in India which is today deeply divided into pro- or anti-US stance.

When President Chirac arrived in Mumbai in 1998, he declared: 'In India, France is not at the level where it should be.' Ten years later, it is still true. France has a role to play in India, but will Delhi and Paris will be bold enough to seize the occasion?

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