(The Hindu) -Consolidating ties with France
• Like many things French, the country’s relationship with India is an understated one. Yet, as President François Hollande wrapped up his three-day visit to India, it would be a mistake to underestimate what the India-France relationship has come to mean over the decades, devoid though it is of the grand claims attached to India’s relations with the big world powers.
• Russia may be India’s oldest and biggest military supplier, the U.S. India’s newest close defence partner, and China India’s biggest trading partner, but it is France that was India’s first strategic partner.
• As a result, and through the strategic dialogue institutionalised since 1998, France and India have close ties on counterterrorism. These have been given a boost by the agreement on intelligence-sharing and cooperation on investigations and judicial processes announced during the visit.
• In fact, Prime Minister Modi described the common threats from “Paris to Pathankot”. On other fronts too, the relationship has held strong. Despite global recrimination over the nuclear tests in 1998, France was the first to re-start nuclear talks with India, and among the first to push nuclear trade with India in later years.
• While the Rafale aircraft deal has overshadowed much of the discussion on French ties in the past few days, the fact is that France began to supply India aircraft (‘Toofani’, or Dassault Ouragan fighters) as early as in 1953, and has been a consistent supplier since.
• Over the years, the French space agency CNES and the Indian Space Research Organisation have collaborated closely. It should therefore come as no surprise that Mr. Hollande’s marked the fifth visit by a French leader as Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade, something Mr. Modi referred to when he said India-France relations have “cleared every test over time”.
• However, the test that the two sides have not yet cleared is the one in bilateral trade. Despite 10 per cent growth in most years and more than a thousand French companies operating in India, India-France trade hovers around $8 billion, which amounts to half of India’s trade with the U.K. or Germany.
• A big reason for this is the impasse in India’s economic relations with the European Union, which have been hanging fire for more than a year now; France is more vulnerable here than its neighbours. Mr. Modi’s expected visit to Brussels for the EU summit in the next few weeks could clear the path for greater bilateral ties with France as well, but India must look to other ways to build on this relationship. Some of those will come from the joint ventures and partnerships envisaged during Mr. Hollande’s visit, on infrastructure such as railways, smart cities and renewable energy projects. But much more needs to come from Indian businesses engaging with France, even as the government moves on long-promised reforms to aid exporters. To quote Mr. Hollande at the CEO forum, speaking about bilateral trade: “We must go faster, much faster and even then it’s too slow.”