Indo-French relations are still more about gestures rather than substance, notwithstanding the nine agreements signed during President Jacques Chirac’s visit. This is a pity because France is one of the world’s leading industrial and agricultural nations. Substantive engagement can yield a great deal for India in areas like education, tourism, agri-processing and hi-tech businesses. Just how tenuous current relations are, is apparent from the way in which the Mittal-Arcelor dispute overshadowed Mr Chirac’s visit. Paris does say all sorts of nice things: India’s right to a seat in the UN Security Council, our role as one of the poles of the international order and so on. But the substance of bilateral ties is painfully limited.
France is only the fifth among EU nations in terms of trade with India — its special 9.6 per cent duty exemption to Pakistani textiles is a specially sore point. Though the balance of trade favours India, it is mainly in terms of raw materials. While we buy engineering goods, expensive weapons and passenger jets, the French have little inclination to associate India in joint development and production in the hi-tech sector. A clear manifestation of symbolism over reality is the so-called nuclear agreement which is, in fact, merely a declaration to encourage peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Manmohan Singh’s statement that India will henceforth put all imported reactors under safeguards cannot hide its vacuity since unsafeguarded reactors are not available from abroad anyway. Actual cooperation, one that will come through a bilateral agreement is expected to come only later, presumably after India has struck a deal with the US. The canny French are supportive of India’s nuclear energy ambitions, but they are not taking the lead — or the flak — in opening the locks to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. They are letting Americans do the job, knowing fully well that once the agreement is through, France will have an edge in supplying turnkey nuclear reactors to India.
This is not to decry Indo-French relationship, but to suggest that we need to add much more substance if we are to call it a strategic partnership.