Rafale jets top agenda on Hollande's India trip
French President François Hollande arrived in India on Thursday for a two-day trip he hopes will pave the way for important trade contracts including a lucrative Rafale fighter jet deal. The trip is the president’s first to Asia.
French President Francois Hollande arrived in India on February 14 on his first trip to Asia since entering office last year. The two-day visit will be dominated by trade issues including a $12-billion contract for Rafale fighter jets, dubbed “the deal of the century” in France. It will also include nuclear energy agreements and potential tie-ups for new metro lines.
Hollande is accompanied by five ministers including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The leaders of more than 60 top French companies will also join him.
Both Indian and French officials have underscored the importance of the trip. India's ambassador to Paris, Rakesh Sood, stressed that Hollande had chosen the emerging Asian superpower for his first visit outside Europe and French-speaking Africa since taking office.
“Until now France and India have had a cordial, boring relationship,” FRANCE 24 international affairs correspondent Leela Jacinto said on Wednesday. “It’s not historical and warm, neither have there been attention-grabbing diplomatic spats. It’s been predictable, amicable and it tends to fall under the radar of international attention. But that’s about to change, dramatically.”
A French official said the trip was aimed at buttressing the "strategic Indo-French partnership launched 15 years ago," referring to the strategic partnership agreement signed by the two countries in 1998.
Top of the agenda is a giant deal that France's Dassault Aviation hopes to close to sell 126 Rafale jets to India this year, although it will not be inked during the trip.
Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier has confirmed that Indian negotiators had detailed their needs for an additional 63 planes over the initial order for 126 aircraft.
In a welcome stroke of serendipity for Paris, the planes in question came into the media spotlight only last month when rapid air strikes on Islamist militants in Mali played a vital role in the whirlwind offensive to drive them from the west African nation's vast northern territory.
“The French have been trying to sell these very expensive jets to any taker with no success,” Jacinto said. “The mission in Mali allowed them to showcase the Rafale fighter jets.”
"Things are moving very fast and we hope that a contract will be finalised as soon as possible," a French diplomatic source said.
Another important project that will dominate the trip is a contract for Areva to construct a nuclear power station in the western coastal state of Maharashtra. It has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists.
The project, signed in December 2010, is for two European pressurised reactors (EPR) at Jaitapur 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Mumbai, with an option for four more reactors.
France is one of the largest suppliers of nuclear fuel to India and is eyeing its vast market for energy – both nuclear and renewable – acknowledging that the current trade level is a fraction of the potential.
“India is a huge market for France and it sees nuclear energy as the future,” Jacinto explained. “It doesn’t seem likely that Hollande will seal the deal in the two days, but he’s definitely going to try to push this through.”
There is also enormous French interest in urban planning. Alstom is hoping to clinch a deal to construct a new stretch of the underground train network in the southern city of Bangalore, the hub of India's IT industry.
The business chiefs accompanying Hollande reflect the enormous interest of French companies in the country's booming market, from luxury goods maker LVMH to aerospace giant EADS, which owns plane maker Airbus.
Rape allegations cast pall
But casting a shadow over the visit is a demand by the Indian wife of a French consular official for a meeting with Hollande. Her husband was charged in June 2012 with raping their three-year-old daughter.
Suja Jones Mazurier's call came after lawyers representing her husband, Pascal Mazurier, were received at Hollande's Elysee Palace.
“Hollande’s team would really like this to go away,” Jacinto said. “But the Indian public is not going to let that happen.”
During his visit, Hollande will hold talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, meet economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and award him with the Legion d'honneur.
He will also address Indian industrialists and visit a research centre set up by French cement maker Lafarge.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)