The atmosphere is Paris is so dense it could be cut with a knife. Despite French protestations of defiance in the face of terror, the habitual insouciance of a people used to doing what they want, when they want, has evaporated. Instead, there’s a feeling of nagging anxiety, a watchfulness quite foreign to this nation of bon vivants.
2015 was France’s “annus horribilis” starting with the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in January and ending with the bloody Mumbai-style killing spree on November 13. This January has seen commemorations across France coupled with news of several foiled attacks. Consequently, it is a totally transformed President François Hollande who travels to India as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations.
When the Mumbai attacks took place France was both horrified and sympathetic. Several westerners, including French citizens, were amongst the dead. However, in the eyes of the French establishment and the people, Mumbai was just another manifestation of the unending conflict between India and Pakistan. An internal affair, in short.
That tune has changed as France realises that there is an international jihadi network that includes terrorist outfits not just in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other failed states but also in countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and that they are not just independent, non-state actors as their leaders claim but often have the tacit support of governments, civilian or military.
Hollande was never taken quite as seriously as his socialist predecessor François Mitterrand, who remains the longest-serving President during France’s Fifth Republic. Mitterrand was a fine strategist, a man who successfully navigated the troubled period of the Vichy years; a man with a hidden past, a concealed fatal illness, who nevertheless earned the respect of his countrymen by the breadth of his culture and ability to sail politically stormy seas.
In contrast, Hollande has been seen as a lightweight, a consensus candidate who won the socialist nomination after the favourite, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, fell victim to carnal excess. Hollande, nicknamed flanby, a wobbly milk pudding, was known to have a fine sense of repartee but was never credited with the killer instinct. That image has undergone a complete transformation. A steely-eyed and resolute Hollande has emerged as a statesman who understands brute power (as in the case of Mali or Syria, where France has deployed troops or is conducting intense bombing raids) but one who is also a fine tactician, decimating his right-wing enemies by occupying the space both right and left of centre through market-friendly reforms. With less than 18 months to go before the presidential polls, Hollande is working towards his re-election.
His State visit concludes with a reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Hollande will lay the foundation stone of the International Solar Alliance in Gurgaon and hold meetings with PM Narendra Modi, Sushma Swaraj, Sonia Gandhi, the President and the Vice President. A large business delegation and several top ministers including Laurent Fabius (foreign affairs) Jean-Yves Le Drian (defence), Segolene Royal (environment), Michel Sapin (finance) and Flore Pellerin (culture). In a first, some 50 French troops and a military band will participate in the Republic Day parade.
India-France contacts have intensified these past months. In a visit last April PM Modi announced the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft in an attempt to break stalled negotiations over the 126 MMRCA fighters India was to buy from Dassault Aviation. Although sources say the contract is close to finalisation with the 50% offset clause being “met” in the nearly $9 billion deal, officials at the Elysées Palace were tight-lipped about inking the contract during the visit. Not a word has been uttered about the remaining 90 aircraft in the original Rafale proposal.
The same is true of the EPR nuclear reactor. The parent company Areva’s nuclear operations arm has been dismantled and taken over by EDF, the energy major. NSA Ajit Doval, who was in Paris a week ago, reportedly told his opposite number Jacques Audibert that India would not renege on its commitment to the EPR. However, a concrete outcome for the six EPRs, slated to be built in Jaitapur, still appears a long way off despite separate MoUs detailing construction and operations signed between Areva, Larsen & Toubro and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India.
Terrorism and regional issues will be high on the agenda and will be the most concrete takeaway from this visit. India will apprise the French on Pakistan, Afghanistan and the neighbourhood. In return India will expect the French to share information on West Asia and Africa. In the past France tended to equate India with Pakistan in the hope of selling armaments to both but increasingly this balance has tilted in favour of India. France, however, remains a mid-level power and has little ability to lean on Pakistan on the question of terrorism. India was impressed by the swift manner in which the French anti-terror units dealt with the November 13 attacks. Cooperation between France’s elite GIGN anti-terrorism officers and Indian anti-terror units will be discussed.
The French are chary of discussing deals that might emerge during this visit except to say that there will be a follow-through on promises made during the COP21 in Paris both in terms of financing and technology transfer. But the Elysées, which has downplayed the visit, could pull a last-minute rabbit out of its hat.
France is the third largest investor in India. With the relative decline of China there is renewed interest in India as an investment destination. While global French players such as Lafarge, St Gobain or Renault are enthusiastic about India, small and medium-sized companies, many of which produce high tech products, view India as bureaucratic and mired in corruption. A businessman in Lyon told this correspondent: “I am allergic to the very idea of India. Your society is caste-ridden, unequal, corrupt and you treat women like slaves or animals.” Thankfully, every French businessman does not have the same view. However, a real image deficit undermines business opportunities. Both Modi and Hollande will have to work to change that.
Vaiju Naravane is a journalist and commentator based in Paris and Delhi
The views expressed are personal