As the political slugfest in India over the Rafale deal escalated, French President Emmanuel Macron has distanced himself from the controversy, saying he was not in power when the multi-billion dollar agreement for the 36 fighter jets was signed between New Delhi and Paris.
Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session, Macron was asked if the Indian government had at any point told France or Dassault -- the French aerospace major -- that they had to accept Reliance as the Indian partner for the Rafale deal.
India had inked an inter-governmental agreement with France in September last year for procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of around Rs 58,000 crore, nearly one-and-a-half year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the proposal during a visit to Paris. The delivery of the jets is scheduled to begin from September, 2019.
“I will be very clear. It was a government-to-government discussion and I just want to refer to what Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi very clearly said a few days ago,” Macron, who became French President in May last year, told reporters without elaborating.
“I don’t have any other comment. I was not in charge at that time and I know that we have very clear rules,” he said in his first comment on the issue.
Macron, who assumed the presidency in May 2017, emphasised that this is a government-to-government discussion and “this contract is part of a broader framework which is military and defence” coalition between India and France.
“This one is very important to me because this is a strategic” coalition and not just an industrial relation. “That is my point. I just want to refer to what PM Modi said on this situation,” he said.
While Prime Minister Modi himself has not yet commented on the Rafale controversy directly, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and other senior ministers have asserted that people of India have put a closure to the issue, saying there were no irregularities.
Prime Minister Modi had announced the procurement of a batch of 36 Rafale jets after holding talks with then French president Francois Hollande on April 10, 2015 in Paris. The final deal was sealed on September 23, 2016.
The French government has said it was in no manner involved in the choice of Indian industrial partners.
A huge controversy over the Rafale deal has erupted in India after a report in the French media quoted former French president Francois Hollande as saying that the selection of the Indian company in the Rafale deal was done at the behest of New Delhi.
Hollande said that the Indian government proposed Reliance Defence as the partner for the French aerospace giant in the Rs 58,000 crore Rafale deal and France did not have a choice.
His comments to ‘Mediapart’, a French language publication, triggered sharp reactions from the opposition parties which have been accusing the government of massive irregularities in the deal and benefiting Reliance Defence Limited despite not having any experience in the aerospace sector.
The report quoted Hollande as saying, "It was the Indian government that proposed this service group, and Dassault which negotiated with (Anil) Ambani. We had no choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us."
In its statement, Dassault Aviation said the contract for supply of 36 Rafale jets is a government-to-government agreement, adding "It provides for a separate contract in which Dassault Aviation commits to make compensation investments (offsets) in India worth 50 per cent of the value of the purchase."
The company also said its partnership with Reliance has led to the creation of the Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd (DRAL) joint-venture in February 2017.