Military & Aerospace

Indo-French Friendship to Partnership-III
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Issue Vol 23.1 Jan-Mar 2008 | Date : 05 Dec , 2010

Obstacles to Indo-French Relations: At the outset, it is necessary to point out that today no major political differences darken the sky between Paris and Delhi except, of course, the unexpected cancellation of the order for the Fennec Eurocopter choppers. France has constantly been supportive of India, particularly for a permanent seat for India in the UN 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 the 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.

From India’s Side

It is interesting to look at what are the main hurdles to be overcome if progress has to be made in this direction.

After September 11, 2001, it became even more obvious that India and Pakistan could not be equated.

The blame for the relative stagnation of the relations between France and India cannot be laid on one side only. There is also no point going back into the past as most of the subjects which have divided Delhi and Paris, whether it is the colonial hangover, India’s so-called non-alignment or France’s adherence to the Western position on the Kashmir issue, do not exist anymore.

In India, one of the hurdles (at least in the field of defence) seems today to be the bureaucratic frame of mind which is not compatible with the speedy modernisation of the armed forces. In the recent months, India had to suffer the cancellation of several important armament deals.27 It has not only a negative impact on the defence forces preparedness-and the Indian nation will ultimately pay the price-but India’s image also takes a beating. “It is impossible to do business with India” is a motto often heard.

Also read: Indo-French Friendship to Partnership-I

As Ajai Shukla, a journalist with an Army background put it an article in the Business Standard: “The cancelled purchase from Eurocopter had taken six years to fructify. Whether another selection procedure will end in a perfectly objective decision is already well known: it will not”. It is true for all the other deals. Many foreign suppliers are now asking: will the same fate await the 126 fighter planes?

Varuna-07Shukla also reveals that India is the only major country that plans its defence one year at a time. India is supposed to have a 15-year Long-Term Integrated Procurement Plan (LTIPP), but it has never taken a concrete shape.Another 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 Delhi’s relations with other countries. It is unfortunately a fact that many Indian leaders today believe that the solution to all problems can come from the United States only, while another category of politicians sees only devilish influences emanating from the US. As a result, nothing moves.

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

Another factor is China. Washington needs to contain the ‘rise’ of the Middle Kingdom. A couple of years ago, a Pentagon report on China’s military advised Washington planners to ‘take more seriously the possibility that China might emerge as a strategic rival to the US.’

Also read: Indo-French Friendship to Partnership-II

The report was released when Dr Manmohan Singh arrived in the US in July 2005.28 Pundits deduced that Washington was keen to develop a new partnership with Delhi to counter Beijing. During the last two or three years, Washington appears keen to use Delhi for its own interests. France has no place in such schemes.

From France’s Side

In the past, France’s India policy has been dependant of many external factors: French colonial past in Indochina and Africa, General de Gaulle’s ‘discovery’ of China, Paris’ alliance with other Western powers, etc.; but since 1998, Paris has turned a page. The policy of equidistance between Delhi and Islamabad which did hamper the ‘friendship’ between Paris and Delhi, is no more. After September 11, 2001, it became even more obvious that India and Pakistan could not be equated29.

French_Defence_Minister_Ali Yavar Jung, the Indian Ambassador in France had told de Gaulle in November 1962 that France “had the advantage, in India’s eyes, to be economically and financially strong and at the same time, had level-headed policies, and can not be a compromising power like the Soviet Union and the US.”

Today, while maintaining ‘privileged’ relations, Delhi and Paris stay short of engaging further. There is a French word which characterises perfectly the French attitude: frilosité. While the dictionary translates it as ‘overcautiousness’ or ‘sensibility to cold’, it can also be translated by ‘the absence of boldness’, a quality supposedly engrained in the French character. Before the 1989 Mitterrand visit, Le Monde’s title was “Absence of disagreement, but lethargic co-operation”. Though tremendous changes have occurred since then, one sometimes has the feeling that this frilosité does not allow the relations to go a step further. The same article quoted an Indian business man dealing with France: “You are able to demonstrate true solidarity [with India]; sometime strike great commercial ‘coups’, but between these sudden initiatives, you don’t work, you let the links loosen. This is the quality and the flaw of the French. It is true in the economic field and also on the politic one. Friendship or partnership, you have to look after it. Our relations are not bad, they are lethargic.”

It seems a correct judgment, 19 years after it was written and nine years after Chirac’s historic visit of 1998.

Prime-Minister-26It is regrettable that the 2006 visit was not prepared with enough seriousness. Otherwise how could the French MoD send the Clemenceau to Gujarat less than 2 months before the State visit?30

The forthcoming visit of the new President of the French Republic seems to have been better prepared with the trips of the French Army and Naval Chiefs and the Foreign Affairs Minister. President Sarkozy, very popular in India for his dynamism, should further boost the relations. Will a further step be taken on Republic Day, with the French President as the Chief Guest? Hopefully it will.

France has many cards in her hand: one is her strong stand in favour of India for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Another considerable advantage of a 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-US and anti-US.

Indo-French relations in the years to come will probably take a new qualitative turn, even if it does not always translate into direct arms sales.31 Apart from a collaboration for the civilian use of the atomic energy32 which has gone a long way from the days of Homi Bhabha and Joliot-Curie, the area which is the most likely to expend is the field of joint-ventures and delocalization.33 Already in 2005, the Director (Exports) of the Paris based MBDA missiles systems told the Financial Express: “India with its skill base and projected economic growth is the preferred partner nation for MBDA due to its unique potential of becoming a defence industrial hub in the region. As such, there are extensive opportunities for collaboration with Indian industry, combining the company’s technology and skills base in weapons design, testing and integration developed over the last 50 years.”34

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 Paris will be bold enough to seize the occasion?


  1. See Dasgupta, C., War and Diplomacy (New Delhi, Sage Publications, 2002).
  2. In January 1948 before an UN debate on Kashmir, French Foreign Minister George Bidault in a letter to his Representative in the UN, made the French position clear: “Concerning Hindustan, you are aware that we have particularly difficult negotiations on the status of our Establishments in India with the authorities in Delhi. We are trying our best to go slow on the Hindus’ susceptibilities; we have done this during the last sessions of the UN General Assembly. I will add that the necessity to maintain essential contacts between France and our expeditionary army in Indochina puts us in the obligation to ask for permission for our planes to fly over India. These are the reasons which should not be forgotten during our intervention in the [Kashmir] debate.”
  3. However both dominions of India and Pakistan kept British Commanders-in-Chief for some time; both newly-born nations remained in the Commonwealth; India kept a British Governor-General for nearly one year. The British left behind the best (or the worst) of their political, administrative and judicial systems as well as their language. All this had a tremendous influence on the defence relations with the United Kingdom (and France).
  4. Mendes-France decided to return the French Establishments to India the day after the successful conclusion of the Geneva Conference on Indochina (July 20, 1954). See: Arpi Claude, La politique française de Nehru – 1947-1954 (Collection des Pavillons, Auroville, 2001)
  5. Though de Gaulle said later that India used an “unacceptable brutality” to get the French out!
  6. Today ‘discrimination’ is still a major issue in the nuclear negotiations between the West and Delhi
  7. See
  8. During a meeting at the White House on November 19, 1962. President Kennedy wanted to discuss the US’s military support to India. Robert McNamara, the US Defence Secretary told the President that “he doubted that the Indians were asking for enough [armament]“. He requested the US President to send a delegation for an on the spot appraisal. Harriman left for India three days later.
  9. It took concrete shape with Pakistan offering Beijing a large chunk of Kashmir territory in 1963.
  10. ‘Strike Force’ in French, for dissuasion or deterrence.
  11. Some French technicians are said to have visited India soon after the conflict to improve the efficiency of the engines of the AMX 13 tanks in high altitude. The war was an excellent occasion for French engineers to test the limits of their material in such tough terrain.
  12. Code name of the plan launched in August 1965 by Pakistan to infiltrate the State of Jammu and Kashmir to foment an insurgency in the Valley.
  13. The Franco-British Jaguar aircrafts purchased in 1979 is part of the British tally.
  14. ISNARD Jacques, (La France s’est engagée à livrer quarante Mirage-2000 à l’Inde), Le Monde 17 avril 1982.
  15. As a bonus, Indian engineers received a six-month training in France with Dassault and Dassault-Systems. In 1984, they were the core group who started the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in Bangalore. The ADA was to oversee the development of India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program.
  16. On 17th March 1998 an agreement was concluded between HAL and Dassault Aviation authorizing HAL to offer over-hauling facilities for Mirage and global customers. In 2000, Delhi gave its green light to purchase 10 more Mirage 2000H for the IAF. The contract represented an amount of 378 million Euros. It was considered as an extension of the 1986 delivery (the IAF having lost 3 planes during training flights).
  17. Le Monde, 22 décembre 1982
  18. Indian Milan under way, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Londres, 22 mars 1986, page 503.
  19. Roger Constance, Indo-French Defence Cooperation – Friends in Need or Friends Indeed, IPCS Research Papers (New Delhi, March 2007).
  20. Known as the Coomar Narain Case in India.
  21. On February 20, 1989 Le Monde’s correspondent wrote: “Paris is trying to keep a certain balance in its relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, though India, in view of its size and influence, has long been privileged by the French diplomacy. Still today, our regional policy is a sensitive issue due to the exacerbated susceptibilities between India and Pakistan. The visit [to Pakistan] of Mr. Mitterrand will be examined in Delhi with a magnifier…”
  22. In a 1998 article titled Returns from the French connection, the Indian Express commented: “Chirac during his visit made clear that France is willing to work at a reinterpretation of the requirements of the NPT. Without breaching its NPT commitments, France is willing to show flexibility on safeguards, provided India displays a certain amount of ‘give’ on the kind of controls it is willing to accept.”
  23. The Indian Prime Minister told the press: “President Chirac and I have decided to initiate a strategic dialogue between the two countries. 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.”
  24. See ?id_rubrique=35
  25. The latest being the visit of General Bruno Cuche, the French Chief of Army Staff, from 26 to 30 November, 2007 and Admiral Alain Oudot de Dainville, the Chief of Naval Staff in December.
  26. General Alain Lamballe, Les relations entre l’Inde et la France de 1947 à 2000 dans le domaine de la sécurité et de la Défense, in Les relations entre la France et l’Inde de 1673 a nos jours, (Collection Les Indes Savantes, Paris, 2002).
  27. Not only with France.
  28. To sign the now famous nuclear deal.
  29. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination makes it all the more evident.
  30. To make things worst, a French senior minister made some remarks on ‘Indians’ wanting to purchase Arcelor a few weeks before Chirac’s arrival.
  31. The arms business remains important: according to SIPRI, nations around the world spent $ 1,204 billion in the year 2006 on military expenditure.  This is equivalent to $ 184 of the per capita.  SIPRI’s year book recorded an increase of 3.5 percent in real terms in 2005 and 37% during the decade 1997-2006. As per Year Book 2007, five countries with the highest military expenditure in 2006 in market exchange rate terms were USA, UK, France, China and Japan. In purchasing power parity terms, the top five spenders were USA, China, India, Russia and UK. As per SIPRI Year Book 2007, defence spending per capita of India in 2006 was $ 21 as against estimated per capita expenditure of $ 37 in respect of China.
  32. During his recent visit to India (December 20, 2007) Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister declared that India and France were working on a civil nuclear accord though its finalization would have to wait till India gets the nod from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
  33. This is a general trend, present also in the civilian field. When President Sarkozy visited to China in October 2007, the New York Times reported about the Airbus manufacturing partnership with China: “the company [has] opened a design center in Beijing. In June 2006, Airbus agreed to set up an A320 assembly line in Tianjin. That line, which is still under construction, is expected to make about four planes a month by 2011.”
  34. Mati Hindrekus, the MBDA spokesman commented: “On one hand, we will benefit from Indian software skills and the country’s lower cost base. On the other India will gain access to the world’s most advanced guided missile technology, which will give the nation a much greater degree of autonomy in developing its current and long term defence capabilities.”
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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