India-France relations set to move into high gear (Special)

September 27th, 2008 - 10:43 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghIndian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will reach Paris Sunday after his visit to the United Nations and his encounter with President Bush in Washington to possibly ink a much-awaited agreement for civil nuclear cooperation with France.Though Indo-French relations have never had the high profile character of the Indo-US, this agreement will mark the culmination of 10 years of a successful strategic partnership.

In January 1998, before reaching New Delhi, then French president Jacques Chirac had declared that he was keen on an “ambitious partnership” with India.

Using a de Gaulle-like language, Chirac saluted India, “a nation which has affirmed its personality on the world stage”.

Later inaugurating a seminar in Vigyan Bhavan, Chirac had mentioned a nuclear deal. Noting that “certain conditions are to be met”, his suggestion had been 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”.

He added that he had come to show that “France wanted to accompany India in its potent march towards the future”.

In January 2008, similar language was used by President Nicholas Sarkozy when he visited New Delhi and initialled the nuclear deal that is expected to be signed Sep 30.

In 1998, 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 New Delhi or impose sanctions. This was greatly appreciated in India and when then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee returned Chirac’s visit in October 1998, the new strategic dialogue could take its first concrete steps.

Today, Ranjan Mathai, the Indian ambassador in Paris, is satisfied. “Indeed it is a partnership which has grown in strength and maturity. We are moving into concrete steps in all strategic fields,” he said.

A senior adviser of French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, agrees that Paris and New Delhi share a special relationship. He specially emphasised the civil nuclear deal which, according to the French government, will greatly help in the fight against global warming, one of the major objectives of the six-month French presidency of the European Union.

The French company Areva, one of the world leaders in nuclear technology, will soon be visiting India for preliminary talks and surveys, even if the US nuclear deal is not ratified by Congress.

Talking about India-France cooperation in other fields, Kouchner’s adviser mentions the very discreet but efficient collaboration in the field of security. Called Strategic Dialogue, it allows regular exchange of concrete information on terrorists.

This cooperation is also likely to be taken a step forward during Manmohan Singh’s visit here. India’s National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and the French president’s diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte, held a meeting here last month to finalise this part of the summit agenda.

One area troubles both sides - the low scale of economic exchanges between the two nations. When Sarkozy visited India in January, he spoke of doubling bilateral trade to 12 billion euros by 2012. Both Paris and New Delhi agree that 6.5 billon euro annual business is small considering the size of the two economies. Though in 2007, bilateral trade grew 26 percent, the issue will figure in the discussions here.

Manmohan Singh will also participate in the EU-India Business Forum organised by the MEDEF, the French Association of Enterprises. Commerce and Industries Minister Kamal Nath and his delegation will later meet a large number of French CEOs.

Another field where progress could be made is educational exchanges. Perhaps because of the language barrier, only 1,300 Indian students are today studying in France.

Recently a Consortium of Indo-French Universities (CIFU) has been set up. Both sides believe that mutual recognition of degrees, mobility of students and sharing of semesters could be go a long way to improve the situation.

Another measure which will improve the exchanges will be the signature of a social security agreement that will benefit nationals working on short-term contracts in each other’s territory.

Sarkozy said this January that he would like to come back to India every year. Nobody knows if his busy schedule will allow him to bring Carla Bruni to the Taj Mahal in 2009. But in any case, India-France relations are set to improve.

(Claude Arpi is a commentator on current affairs. He can be contacted at claude@auroville.org.in)

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