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How Indo-French ties have evolved into an epitome of strategic, economic and cultural cooperation
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Claude Arpi | Date:14 Jul , 2023 0 Comments
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.

This year, France and India are celebrating 25 years of their strategic partnership. The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the chief guest for the parade on the French National Day (Bastille Day) in Paris will be the culmination of this momentous year. It will also witness a host of new agreements between the two nations.

One could believe that Narendra Modi’s decision to purchase 36 Rafale planes ‘off-the-shelf’, during his April visit to Paris in April 2015, was the true beginning of the partnership; it is true that it was a quick, pragmatic and smart move. Delhi brought the IAF’s ‘critical operational necessity’ to the negotiating table while dropping the cumbersome Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft framework. But it was far from being the first bilateral deal in terms of defence.

A letter sent by HS Malik, India’s Ambassador to France to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in October 1953 testifies that 70 years ago, France and India were already special friends.

At that time, India purchased 71 Ouragans (known in India as ‘Toofanis’) from the French firm, Dassault.

Though at that time the question of the French settlements in India was not solved; (the de facto transfer of Pondicherry and the three other settlements Yanon, Mahe and Karikal took only place a year later on 1 November, 1954), some trust was obviously already present.

Addressing Nehru, the Indian ambassador wrote: “All of us in the Embassy who have been working on the implantation of the contract with the Defence Ministry for the supply of Ouragan aircraft were greatly relieved and delighted when we got the news that our four pilots with the four Ouragans had reached Palam safely. This flight from France to India has involved a great deal of organizational work for which much credit is due to the team of the Indian Air Force Officers.”

Malik continued: “I venture to bring to your notice the wonderful cooperation that we have received both from the French officers of the Ministry of Defence, from the Cabinet Minister downwards, and from the French industry. We signed the contract only last June. Already four planes have reached India; another 35 are being sent on October the 30th on the aircraft carrier Dixmude, and the remainder, 32 aircraft, will be dispatched in January 1954. I think you will agree that this is indeed prompt execution of the agreement as embodied in the contract between us and the French.”

Malik added: “Our pilots who came here to learn to fly this type of aircraft, which was new to them, won the admiration and respect of the French Air Force and, generally speaking, …in spite of the language handicap, [the pilots] have made friends and won the respect of the people among whom they have lived.” These words speak for themselves. 

Old and stable relations

The selection of the Toofanis or the Rafales was a hallmark of the partnership between Delhi and Paris.

Historians usually consider the period between 1947 and 1962 as the first phase of Indo-French relations. Year 1962 was for France the year it constitutionally departed from the subcontinent and for India.

As early as January 1947, though the relations were not too cordial between France and India due to the colonial burden, the French government asked for a 10-year extension of the 1945 agreement permitting military air ferries to fly across India. Nehru, the interim prime minister noted: “Public opinion in India is very much against the use of force by the French Government against the people of Indochina and anything which we do to facilitate the use of this force is bound to be resented and vigorously criticized”, but on 16 July, 1947 an agreement on air services between India and France was signed.

Soon after, an interesting development occurred. Nehru, then interested in the programme ‘Atoms for Peace’, was “anxious to help in every way in developing atomic energy in India”. He decided to unofficially send Homi J Bhabha to enquire about the possibility of collaboration for the peaceful use of atomic energy: “In view of the fact that India possesses very large resources of minerals suitable for the generation of atomic power, India is destined to play an important part in research on atomic energy in cooperation with other countries.”

Homi Bhabha had extremely cordial contacts with Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Raoul Dautry, the first heads of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), founded by de Gaulle in 1945.

The French armament sales during this first phase were relatively large despite the factors mentioned above.

On 22 September, 1962, General de Gaulle received Nehru in Paris. Nehru first congratulated him for the settlement of the Algerian crisis as well as the ratification of the cession of the French Establishments in India. De Gaulle replied that he was happy to see that India had dealt successfully with some of the issues the West had doubts about at the time of independence.

Though the Indian Air Force did not directly take part in the conflict with China, Toofanis, as well as 110 Mystère and 12 Alizée (of Bréguet Aviation), were in service in 1962. Further, 150 AMX 13 light tanks were sold to India after an agreement was signed in 1957 (remember the battle of Chushul in November 1962).

With Dassault, the collaboration continued uninterrupted and in the 1980s India acquired the Mirage 2000.

If president François Mitterrand laid the foundation of a solid friendship with India, the regular dialogue was institutionalised during president Jacques Chirac’s visit in early 1998 through a ‘strategic’ partnership. This is still the base of the present trusted relationship. As for cultural relations, they will go on regardless of who is at the helm of India or France.

Modi in Paris

To be invited as the chief guest at the Bastille Day Parade is a rare honour. French Ambassador in India, Emmanuel Lenain told India Today that the visit would have “maximum impact and maximum outcomes”.

Lenain mentioned “the leaps in defence cooperation, which would be visible at the special military parade. We’re going to have Indian troops marching on the Champs-Elysées at the beginning of Bastille Day, and we have Indian Rafale participating in the fly past.” The ambassador added: “We provide the best technology to India as a close partner and ally. We also provide maximum content of ‘Make in India’, so we have made a good offer. The decision is now really in the hands of Indian authorities.”

The cherry on the cake could be the signature for Rafale-M; the Indian Navy is believed to have expressed a preference for the French fighter plane for its new aircraft carrier.

The Indian Navy is also interested in additional Scorpene-class submarines (six Kalvari submarines were built by Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited with French transfer of technology), also in the pipeline, an Airbus deal to manufacture C-295 tactical transport aircraft in Gujarat.

But there is more, after the Indian prime minister managed to get Washington’s agreement for the transfer of jet engine technology; negotiations with Paris should materialise to co-develop a high-thrust engine for the country’s stealth fighter jet programme, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

According to India Today: “France’s Safran is believed to have agreed to completely share its jet engine technology with India to help develop the high-thrust 110kN engine. Safran has already co-developed a helicopter engine for India’s homegrown chopper fleet, and has been negotiating over the fighter jet engine for long.”

It is interesting to note that in recent years, France has emerged as a winner over Russia in defence purchases by India; with the Ukraine war, this trend can only increase.

In another interview with ANI, Lenain explained: “We work in the spirit of partnership, French companies have been the pioneers for years for make in India and now we totally understood the philosophy of Aatmanirbhar Bharat and they really want to share best technologies and to develop jointly in future.”

India and France will also be working on a roadmap for renewed cooperation for the next 25 years, which might be extremely challenging for the planet.

Indeed, India and France have gone a long way during the last 70 years (and especially after 1998). But it is important to remember that when India conducted its nuclear tests in Pokhran in May 1998, France was one of the few countries which did not condemn Delhi (or impose sanctions). This was greatly appreciated in Delhi and when in October 1998 prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee returned president Jacques Chirac’s visit to India, the new strategic dialogue could take its first concrete steps.

These events set in motion a closer collaboration and the indeed present partnership owes much to these two leaders.

From the ‘friendship’ mentioned by General de Gaulle in 1962, the relationship has become a true strategic, economic and cultural partnership.

In the present turbulent times, the stability of the relationship between Delhi and Paris is important for the world.


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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.

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