Undaunted by the political uncertainty in India, French president Jacques Chirac's January 24-26 visit to India is being seen as a chance to wipe the slate clean of the rancour that has marred bilateral ties in recent decades. He will be chief guest at the Republic Day parade and will visit Mumbai.
"The point is that he is still coming while others like Bill Clinton have postponed or cancelled their visits," says a senior French source in New Delhi. The visit, which will include a delegation of senior businessmen, is a part of France's new look-east policy. But there are no indications on either side that bilateral mistrust over the last few years will make this trip, which follows Narasimha Rao's visit to Paris in 1995, a little more than a splashy start.
One does not have to look very far to understand why the relationship has had so many hiccups. In 1995, Benazir Bhutto emerged from a meeting with Jacques Chirac to announce that France was going to sell Pakistan the multiple air combat Mirage 2000-V fighter plane. Although Pakistan never managed to come up with the cash to pay for the fighters, the deal-on-hold created suspicion in India and caused a cancellation of planned ministerial visits. In the last few months France through diplomatic channels has privately assured India that the deal is no longer in the offing. But France has also supplied equipment like the Agosta class submarine, Exocet missile and the Atlantique surveillance aircraft to the Pakistan navy. "We have been upset about France selling this military equipment to Pakistan," admits a senior official at the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.
As India analyst Christophe Jaffrelot notes: "Indo-French relations have always been difficult for unexpected reasons." France lags behind its European Union partners in gaining a foothold in the Indian market. Germany and the UK do brisk trade with India while France is only its 13th largest export partner and 18th import partner, according to latest available figures. In 1996, the total trade with France was measured at 11 billion francs (over Rs 7,000 crore)—although it had grown by 40 per cent between 1991 and 1996.
Security problems have also damaged French commercial interests in India. In 1989, a consortium of five French companies was commissioned to build a barrage at Dulhasti, in J&K, but they underestimated the time and money involved. To make matters worse, one of the engineers of Dumez Sozia Borie (DSB), a member of the consortium, was kidnapped by Kashmiri militants in the early '90s. Although he was released after two months, DSB stopped work in August 1992 and the contract formally terminated in 1994. Work was suspended and then resumed in 1995 by the National Hydro Power Corporation. The latest group working on the project includes French and Indian companies. It is not expected to be completed before 2001. "And the cost is abnormally high, we have had multiple problems with this project," says one Indian source.
More recently, Peugeot pinned hopes on doing business with PAL in India, but the project failed because the two partners did not get along and were unable to market the car properly. One criticism was that France had decided to sell a 15-year-old model of the car in India. "They thought India was Africa, where the car has been used with success. But India is a very different market," says an observer.
The head of the Asia division of CNPF International, which represents all big French business, Thierry Courtaigne, also commented that cultural gaps and the resultant scope for misunderstanding have to be overcome to establish a strong economic relationship between the two countries. "But India is a big priority for French business in 1998," he told Indian journalists visiting Paris earlier this year.
If the French people's perceptions about India are vague, Indian perceptions of France are not much better. "Most Indians don't associate France with anything except wine and cosmetics," says a western diplomat in New Delhi. The fault may lie with France. With the end of the Cold War, the old power structures crumbled. France's power within Asia was already on the decline. It decided to rectify the situation by putting most of its eggs in the Chinese and Japanese baskets while ignoring India.
Although China's double-digit growth rate is impressive, there are growing fears in France about possible socio-economic troubles following Deng's death. "India is still suffering from comparison with China," says Jaffrelot. "But what France now argues is that India is a more stable democracy. People are now starting to think twice before putting their money in China."
But political realities in India make any big contracts being finalised during this visit virtually impossible, say French diplomats; although minor agreements related to consular matters, including the transfer of convicted offenders and other criminal and civil matters, will be signed. A cultural exchange agreement is expected to be signed in the near future. India is also negotiating the purchase of replacement Mirages.
Paris believes that if the BJP comes to power, French insurance firms, which at one time hoped India might privatise its insurance sector, would lose hope of doing business with this country. The same would be true of many companies making consumer products unless there is a big move to transfer technology as well.
But the visit could be more than symbolic. Some observers believe that Chirac should discuss reform of the UN Security Council as Paris feels that the council does not represent a balance of forces in the world. "France has a principled position of putting developing countries on the council and believes in multiplicity in foreign policy," says an Indian bureaucrat.
It has also been suggested that Chirac could discuss his government's position on Iraq, which is closer to India's and against the extreme stand of US sanctions, if he wants to make a big statement. Says Jaffrelot: "France could even invite India to the next Asia-European meeting. It keeps talking about going to India, but will they cross the Rubicon?"
Unofficial reports suggest that French companies might be willing to offer help in building nuclear power plants in India at some later date as the French themselves are dependent for at least 70 per cent of their power on nuclear energy. "However, while EDF (Electricite de France) is interested, they don't want to start with nuclear plants right away, as one Indian company has suggested," says Jaffrelot.
While there may be a surfeit of eagerness on both sides to move ahead with business, only the unfolding domestic political drama will tell whether the upcoming presidential visit has been well timed.