Donít fret over new French President
May  3,  2012

In a couple of days, the voters of France will elect their President, and if opinion polls are to be believed, they will pick a new Head of State: the Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, who won more votes than the incumbent, Nicholas Sarkozy, in the first round, is expected to widen his lead in the second round on Sunday.

India, whose relations with France have been blossoming in recent years, will have to adjust to a new, not noticeably internationalist, leader with no previous ministerial track record.

Hollande’s focus is likely to be largely internal, since France has been no exception to the rising tide of economic discontent that has swept across Europe, and that is likely to sweep President Sarkozy out of office as well.

But he will preside over a relationship that has begun to acquire increasing importance in both Paris and New Delhi.
France enjoys a limited historical basis for its relationship with India, since its colonial presence was limited to a few enclaves and left no lasting mark on the society as a whole.

But our two countries’ bilateral relationship has never been stronger. Our ties with France have featured increasingly close military co-operation and intelligence sharing, creating a level of trust that may also have played a role in the decision to award Dassault’s Rafale the multi-billion dollar fighter plane contract which the entire world seemed to want to bid for.

France’s willingness to offer India an unprecedentedly generous level of ‘offsets’ in exchange for its decision, as well as to transfer technology, suggests the basis for the kind of close partnership that India is yet to enjoy with the United States.

There is also active bilateral engagement on specialised defence-related fields such as counterterrorism – the Indo-French Working Group on Terrorism has met every year since 2001 – as well as on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

France has also developed an important level of energy co-operation with India, especially following a 2008 agreement between the two countries that has paved the way for the sale of nuclear reactors to India. Nor is the interest purely economic.

French interest in Indian culture and a sustained level of scholarship on the country, as reflected by the impressive work of its Centre de Sciences Humaines in New Delhi and the prestigious Institut Francais de Pondichery, testify to the intellectual depth of the engagement. (This has only modestly been reciprocated by India, which has for the last couple of decades posted a succession of non-Francophone Ambassadors to Paris.)

But there is something a little more indefinable that brings the two countries closer together. Both France and India are contentious democracies which are better at talk than action. Both are fiercely proud of their culture, their cuisine, their secularism and their exceptional place in the world. Both believe their virtues to be self-evident.

And both are sustained by a larger idea of themselves: the ‘idea of India’, in Tagore’s famous phrase, is mirrored by a sense of French nationhood that is both anchored in the finest traditions of Western civilisation and yet somehow apart from it.

France is a nation and a society that preserved a sense of its own worth through periods of remarkable adversity: it is typical of the French that their response to the humiliation of being thrashed in war by Prussia in 1870 was to create the Alliance Francaise to take French culture around the world. You can defeat us militarily, they were saying to their Germanic victors, but you can never conquer the French spirit.

The result is that France has always had an idiosyncratic view of world affairs. It is a member of NATO but dissented more often from Washington than it agreed with it; indeed, between 1959 and 1966 President de Gaulle progressively withdrew French participation in NATO’s military operations while remaining a member of the alliance, culminating in a rejection of NATO’s integrated military command, a state of affairs that continued till President Sarkozy rejoined the alliance fully only in 2009.

France’s posture, whether under conservative governments or socialist ones, has been that of an independent power within the Western fold. Its disagreement with the Bush Administration over the U.S.’ push to war in Iraq led to fury in Washington (and the petulant renaming of ‘French fries’ in the Congressional canteen on Capitol Hill as ‘freedom fries’).

In this respect it is very different from Britain, which has stayed loyal to the U.S. even at the price of swallowing its own views on certain global issues.

As they like to say in France, Vive (long live) la difference! This independent, even idiosyncratic, worldview makes France a natural partner for an India that has outgrown its old Third Worldism but is not entirely comfortable pledging itself to making common cause with the Western democracies.

India does not agree with France all the time – the two had sharply differing views on the NATO intervention in Libya, for instance – but the two countries are comfortable in their occasional disagreements.

This fundamental level of concordance is likely to persist under a Socialist government in Paris, since it reflects national policy rather than party political preference.

New Delhi should aim to send a special envoy to the new President soon after his inauguration – ideally one speaking French, since Mr Hollande’s English is limited – to affirm India’s interest in working with him to develop a relationship that can increasingly be characterised as special.

The defence of pluralist and secular societies is a cause both nations hold dear, and offers an important basis for international co-operation, particularly on counter-terrorism.

At the same time both countries, as hosts to significant Muslim minorities, have a sophisticated view of the Islamic world and will not fall prey to simplistic Islamophobia. France’s defence industry is already proving a vital asset for India’s national security as we broaden our traditional sources of supply. Nuclear co-operation – France has no hang-ups over India’s nuclear liability legislation – is also blossoming and has great potential for further growth.

We can watch the results come in on Sunday night confident that, whoever wins, India will have a partner in the Elysee we can do business with.

Source: Daily Mail

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