'Over the last two decades, the India-French relationship has grown steadily, no major political difference having darkened the sky between Paris and Delhi,' says Claude Arpi.
IMAGE: French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Marie-Claude Macron at the ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan, March 10, 2018.
The French leader and the first lady are flanked by President Ram Nath Kovind, First Lady Savita Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra D Modi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
President Emmanuel Macron's visit was already a success before he landed in Delhi.
For the first time, a French President was on the cover of a national magazine (India Today). Another first: Macron gave an interview from the Elysee Palace in Paris which was broadcasted in prime time on a major television channel (again, India Today) and the President spoke in English. Hard to believe?
This undoubtedly symbolises the changing, though always special, relations between France and India, celebrating 20 years of 'strategic partnership'.
Let us not forget that the accord signed in 1998 by then president Jacques Chirac and then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the oldest such partnership.
Over the last two decades, it has grown steadily, no major political difference having darkened the sky between Paris and Delhi.
Relations have always been easy
Between 1947 and 1954, the relations were often tense due to the issue of the French settlements in India which would only be solved with the de facto transfer of Pondicherry to the Union of India at the end of 1954.
What is less known is that, despite differences, India and France continued to work together.
On October 26, 1953, a secret cable addressed to Nehru sent by H S Malik, the Indian ambassador in Paris, demonstrates this.
'All of us in the Embassy who have been working on the implantation of the contract with the Defence Ministry here for the supply of Ouragan (Toofani in India) aircraft were greatly relieved and delighted when we got the news that our four pilots with the four Ouragans had reached Palam safely.'
Malik informed the prime minister of the wonderful cooperation received 'both from the French officers of the Ministry of Defence, from the Cabinet Minister downwards, and from the French industry.'
Let us remember that this was perhaps one of the most trying times on the ground, particularly in Pondicherry.
A contract had however been signed with Dassault in June 1953 for 70 planes; as Malik noted, four planes had already reached India by air, while another 35 had been sent with the Dixmude aircraft carrier. The remainder 32 aircraft would be delivered in early 1954.
Malik told the prime minister: 'I have been thinking for some time whether it would not be possible to use the opportunity provided us by this cooperation and collaboration by the French to relive somewhat the existing unfortunate state of relations between India and France on account of the position which we naturally have had to take up vis-à-vis the stupidity and lack of imagination of the French over the question of the French Settlements in India.' The issue of the French settlement was eventually solved in October 1954.
Since the signature of the 1998 Strategic Agreement, France has constantly been supportive of India, particularly during the Pokhram nuclear tests, for a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council and has shown comprehension for India's nuclear policy.
The present visit
On his arrival, the French president stated that the visit would open a new era in strategic partnership for the coming decades: 'Our two democracies have common channels like terrorism, lots of common risks and common threats. But we have to protect this history and the state for freedom.'
'I want my country to be the best partner in Europe,' President Macron said. 'This is a strong message. I want Indian citizens coming to France for studying, becoming entrepreneurs and opening start-ups.'
Some 14 bilateral agreements were signed at Hyderabad House, strengthening the bilateral economic, political and strategic ties between the two countries.
IMAGE: The Macrons pay their respects at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Rajghat. Photograph: Altaf Hussain/Reuters
The joint statement
Issued after the bilateral talks, it affirmed: 'Both leaders agreed to deepen and strengthen the bilateral ties based on shared principles and values of democracy, freedom, rule of law and respect for human rights.'
A message that India and not China was the partner????
On the emotive side, 'the valiant sacrifices made by Indian and French soldiers during the First World War' was mentioned. Modi agreed to participate in the closing of the First World War Centenary celebrations, which will take place on November 11 in Paris.
The first is, of course, the Rs 59,000 crore (Rs 590 billion) deal for 36 Rafale fighters in September 2016. It will soon prove to be a game changer, partly due the offset clauses forcing the French to reinvest in India 50% of the total deal's amount, but also for India's western and northern fronts.
But Delhi also knows that it needs to diversify its diplomatic relations if it wants to play a major role in the world. Here too, France could also be a crucial partner.
In an article for Carnegie India, C Raja Mohan and Darshana Baruah wrote about the Deepening the India-France Maritime Partnership (external link): 'Faced with growing geopolitical turbulence and more aggressive maritime maneuvering, India and France are eager to expand their strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific.'
According to the joint Statement: 'The leaders appreciated the deepening interactions in the maritime domain for enhanced cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region... The leaders reiterated that this cooperation will be crucial in order to maintain the safety of international sea lanes for unimpeded commerce and communications in accordance with the international law, for countering maritime terrorism and piracy, for building maritime domain awareness, for capacity building and for greater coordination in regional/international fora in the region.'
It may translate into a logistics accord allowing India access to the strategically important French base in the Reunion Islands near Madagascar.
Another possibility is the opening to India of the French facilities in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa where India's rival China has already a military base. This is part of India's new maritime strategy.
The shortest article of the joint statement is worth noting: 'The leaders noted ongoing discussions between DRDO and SAFRAN on combat aircraft engine and encouraged necessary measures and forward looking approaches to facilitate early conclusion.'
The idea is to develop a M88 engine for the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas with Safran, one of Dassault's partners of in the Rafale deal.
The LCA Tejas, manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, is presently equipped with a General Electric F404 IN20 engine.
India is obviously keen to resurrect the Kaveri engine project, which was originally started in the 1990s, and develop an indigenous jet engine. Safran is ready to collaborate on the Kaveri engine programme as part of the 50% offsets for the Rafale deal.
A report in The Tribune recently hinted that 'the M88 engine would be used as the base engine to adapt it for the LCA programme or it would be an altogether new development using Safran technology to create a new engine from the ground upwards.'
That would be a major joint project.
The Solar Alliance
The cherry on the visit's cake was the co-hosting of the International Solar Conference, ISA. Macron's visit was delayed for a few months due to the importance of the joint initiative.
An alliance of more than 121 countries launched at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in November 2015, the ISA wants to create a coalition of solar resource rich countries and address each participant's special energy needs.
IMAGE: Students take a selfie with Macron, who turned 40 in December, at Delhi's Bikaner House. During his interaction with the students, the French president said, 'I want to double the number of Indian students coming to France and also want to increase the number of French students going to India.
He also told the students, 'When facing difficulties: accept to go to sleep with doubts but always refuse to wake up with them.' Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
One is the vibrant educational cooperation between Indian and French universities and academic institutes.
A host of agreements were signed during the Knowledge Summit, the first Indo-French conference on research and higher education in presence of the French and Indian minister of education.
The joint statement spoke of increasing the number and quality of student exchanges, with the aim of reaching 10,000 students by 2020. An agreement for the mutual recognition of degrees, should 'facilitate the pursuit of higher education by Indian students in France and French students in India and enhance their employability.'
One could, however, notice the quasi absence of defence and humanities participation in the Summit; a regrettable lack.
However, looking toward the future is the Indo-French Centre for Promotion of Advance Research (CEFIPRA) which crossed 30 years of existence in 2017. Initiatives such as the CEFIPRA could be the link between the discoveries in fundamental research and their technological applications.
There is no doubt that research in new fields such as Artificial Intelligence, quantum communications, drone technology, etc. can only fructify in a relationship of total trust. As is the case between India and France today, very few countries can boast of such cloudless relations with Delhi.
One can nevertheless regret that Pondicherry was not included in the presidential tour. It would have been an occasion to turn a historical page of bilateral relations.
Next time? The Summit should be a bi-yearly affair according to the joint statement.