An underrated, silent, yet one of the most dependable future alignments occurred in 1950 when the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) decided to offer technical cooperation to India’s civil nuclear innovation. Since then, Soviet Union had been the more advertised ‘ally’ of India but, there could be no nuking of Indo-French ties despite the ‘nuclear apartheid regime’ against India post its 1998 nuclear tests. In fact, after the tests, both nations became strategic partners. Last week, when PM Modi landed in Paris, he became the first head of state to meet President Macron after his re-election for the second term. The undercurrent warmth in the two leaders’ bear hug symbolized not only the personal chemistry of the two leaders but also marked the durability and sustainability of Indo-French cooperation.
The visit of Indian Prime Minister to Europe comes at a crucial juncture in geopolitics at the moment- given the Russia-Ukraine war, ‘information war’ between the West and Russia, Europe’s concerns over India’s ‘equidistance’ in the conflict etc. Amidst all this heat came Modi-Macron tête-à-tête – with the Élysée Palace hosting a vegetarian spread for the Indian delegation, wherein both sides aspired to reap benefits of an old and stable relationship. The prospects of France-India relations are anyway, massive- in terms of all aspects of trade, defence, space, technology, nuclear and strategic ends.
On most global issues of security, climate change, transnational terrorism etc. India and France are on the same page, with both leaders having the democratic capital as well as political will to build up on these key issues. The ingredients are already present and the following factors hold the potential to set the tone for even further enhanced cooperation.
The first element is defence cooperation- France is already India’s second largest weapons’ supplier, after Russia. The major factor responsible for India’s ‘proactive neutrality’ in the current Ukraine war is its dependence on Russia for defence supplies. Paris offers the required diversification in New Delhi’s defence pacts with some big ticket deals already in. Last of the 36 Rafael jets from France are being readied for delivery and India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikrant is looking at more Rafael fighter jets by Dassault Aviation. Indian Navy’s sixth Scorpene (French designed) class submarine was launched in April 2022. France also becomes a ‘unique defence supplier’ to India- given the fact that it does not trade with India’s rivals- Russia supplies weapons to China and USA does the same for Pakistan. This makes Paris ‘special’ for New Delhi.
The second element is the Indo-Pacific cooperation. President Macron has ambitious goals in the region as exhibited by his special Indo-Pacific forum hosted in February 2022. Amidst Russia’s military build-up in Ukraine, France managed to focus on Indo-Pacific. Given the presence of French Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean, France has direct stakes in the region, unlike the rest of Europe which is geographically isolated from the Indo-Pacific. Paris is still seething from the AUKUS snub and considers it as an ‘Anglosphere Club’- India is also not part of it, despite being a member of QUAD in the region. France, clearly, is an Indian Ocean power and India’s vision of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) being a multilateral space fits with Macron’s worldview.
Emmanuel Macron sees himself not just as the leader of France but he also stands as one of the tallest leaders in Europe. He wishes Europe to step out of America’s shadow- in terms of will, here, Germany lags behind. Another crucial factor here is France, throughout the war in Ukraine, has been understanding of India’s position on the matter and did not lecture India once. Thus, Paris, in every way, acts as India’s ‘gateway to Europe’. With France being the current President of Council of the European Union (EU), India-EU free trade agreement (FTA) talks become much easier.
There are certain areas of unrealised potential- first is bilateral trade. France makes up only 1.4% of India’s total trade. Due to the pandemic, the bilateral exports on either side are declining. Both partners must take note of this issue as “countries that trade together, stay together”. Second is the China factor- as witnessed by the difference in the language on the Indo-Pacific. Macron considers China a competitor, not an aggressively revisionist power trying to upend the world order. Here, India needs to convince France for greater engagement in Indo-Pacific or perhaps, even convince it of the China threat.
The recent joint statement, last week, can be read with the following three takeaways- “both sides will work together to end hostilities in Ukraine, expand defence cooperation and collaborate in space”. When PM Modi landed in Berlin earlier on his Europe visit, there were separate press releases. While French condemnation of Russia in Ukraine is strong and public and India’s reluctance to name Russia continues- their joint statement, this time, becomes significant with India actually incorporating French objections over Russia’s actions in the same statement. The two nations called out for an “immediate ceasefire and a diplomatic solution for the conflict”. Both Modi and Macron are also uniquely placed as leaders of the two nations to communicate with the warring parties; having direct communication lines with both Moscow and Kyiv. Also, they highlighted need for a multilateral response to high inflation and disruption of supply chains due to the war.
France already agreed to technology transfer with its Scorpene class submarines and now is looking forward to more such deals in order to move ahead from a ‘seller to investor’ relationship in defence ties with India. The most exciting takeaway becomes the ‘bilateral strategic dialogue’ on space between the two partners to be held later this year. The economy of space, security challenges and rules in space will be the essential topics of discussion at the Dialogue. New Delhi has held similar such engagements with USA and Japan on ‘rules in space’ and France becomes the third country here.
India-EU need to fast-track their FTA talks and a ‘vote of confidence’ from France can actually seal the deal. Many experts in India call out France as the ‘new Russia’ for India, given their strong convergence on most issues. India and France co-founded the International Solar Alliance earlier – 2021 was the year of Indo-French alliance towards a greener planet. France has become a solid veto in favour of India at the UN Security Council on matters of Kashmir and cross-border terrorism from Pakistan.
Both nations have more in common than ever before with very little colonial baggage. The current churns in geopolitics- Ukraine, Afghanistan, Indo-Pacific etc. offer ample opportunities for both sides to cooperate for ‘democratic renaissance’ and capitalise on strategic gains.