It is said that the French are guided by the “heart” when they vote in the first round of the presidential election and the “head” in the second. The news that the “head” has won once again and that the electorate has given incumbent President Emmanuel Macron a 17% lead (compared to 32% in 2017) over Marine Le Pen, in the final round of the April 24, 2022, has been received. with undisguised joy across the world, including India.
“Congratulations to my friend @EmmanuelMacron for his re-election as President of France! I look forward to continuing to work together to deepen the India-France strategic partnership,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted shortly after the official announcement. The Indian Prime Minister had good reason to be pleased given the excellent personal relationship the two leaders enjoy and the momentum they have given to the relationship.
Modi had set protocol aside by making a personal visit to Paris days after Macron’s ascension to the Elysee Palace in May 2017. Again making an exception, he received the young French leader on the airport tarmac when the latter visited India in 2018. He is all set to do an encore on May 4, 2022, this time to hug a friend and partner in Paris, who defied the spell of a one-time mandate from two decades to get re-elected despite the best performance of all time by Marine Le Pen, his far-right challenger.
India regards France as a “great power with a global vision and an independent spirit”. A country that believes in “multipolarity”, avoids “dogmatism” and has been “extremely responsive to India’s concerns and priorities”. Our relations have been “free from sudden changes and surprises that we sometimes see in other cases” (I hope some capitals have taken notice!) – noted External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar in his founding speech at the French Institute of International Relations IFRI) earlier this year in February during his visit to Paris. Few of India’s partners will match such billing.
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A bridge to the European Union
Although India and France have a long-standing relationship, the turning point came in 1998 when France refused to join in the high-decibel Western chorus criticizing India’s nuclear tests in May. A similar desire to preserve autonomy in foreign policy decisions was manifested when France refused to participate or send its troops to Iraq during the second Gulf War in 2003, despite being an ally of the United States and a member of NATO, because the military action was not authorized by the UN Security Council. The US and UK were furious, as was the English-language media, but Paris held firm. Germany and India had already refrained from committing their soldiers.
Public disapproval of France was noticeably high during the period. A popular anecdote says that an American visiting London consumed too much beer and had to relieve himself urgently. He consulted a “bobby” who escorted him a few hundred yards and asked him to enter the building through a gate in a well-kept garden. Business done; the visitor chirped “so this is British hospitality?”. “No sir,” replied the cop, “it’s the French embassy.”
During this difficult period, the bilateral relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership when Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Paris in September 1998. This was a first for India. A strategic dialogue has been initiated between the parties, to review India’s security imperatives, strategic imperatives and the nuclear issue. It was headed by the Prime Minister’s principal secretary Brajesh Mishra and Gérard Errera, special envoy of President Jacques Chirac. While stationed in Tokyo, I remember a Western diplomat complaining that the French and the Russians had started talking to the Indian voice.
Be that as it may, bilateral cooperation has continued to grow in breadth, depth and sophistication, including in the areas of defence, space, digital and civil nuclear. It is not for nothing that a French dignitary has been the chief guest of India’s Republic Day celebrations five times, which is the most invitations India has sent to any which country.
France has become an essential partner for our national security. Our defense partnership dates back decades, starting with a major acquisition of French fighter jets in the early 1950s. derived from the French concept.
Since then, we have intensified the engagement to include military exchanges, joint military exercises, the purchase of fighter jets and submarines as well as the co-development and co-production of defense equipment. France has always shown the necessary flexibility and understanding of India’s requirements. The 20th round of talks between the Indo-French General Staff was held earlier this month in New Delhi to speed up defense cooperation.
France is perhaps the only country in Europe to be a true resident power in the Indo-Pacific region with jurisdiction over a vast EEZ (exclusive economic zone), extending over 9.1 million km² and territories like Reunion, Mayotte, southern and Antarctic France. Lands, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, where 1.6 million of its citizens reside. We enjoy a marked convergence in our approach to maintaining a rules-based, inclusive, free from coercion and democratic regional order.
Unlike most European countries, France is taking a tougher stance on China, while remaining invested in the ties. Public opinion on China is becoming increasingly negative in France. On the other hand, during his visit to India in 2018, President Macron said: “India has been France’s first ally in the region. It is France’s gateway to the region, and my objective is to make France India’s gateway to Europe”. The Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed himself on the same refrain at IFRI in February: “France has been for us an important bridge towards the European Union”. We can add that France is a natural candidate to join the QUAD as the forum expands.
Links on Terra Firma
Returning to the re-election of President Macron, as noted above, bilateral relations have made significant progress under his leadership and that of Prime Minister Modi. The two leaders teamed up to co-host the Founding Summit of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in New Delhi in 2018. The ISA is one of the flagship initiatives of the Modi government. They unveiled a joint strategic vision for Franco-Indian cooperation in the Indian Ocean region; agreed to hold biennial summits; annual defense dialogue at ministerial level, and welcomed the conclusion of a reciprocal logistics support agreement between their armed forces.
At Macron’s personal invitation, a reflection of their chemistry, Modi traveled to France to attend the G-7 summit, even though India is not a member of the grouping. An implementation agreement between ISRO and CNES France for joint maritime domain awareness was signed during this visit. They unveiled a “Bilateral Roadmap on Cybersecurity and Digital Technologies” to strengthen the digital partnership and intensify cooperation on digital governance, cybersecurity and the fight against cybercrime. In February, the parties adopted a roadmap announcing a plan to establish an India-France partnership on blue economy and ocean governance.
During his second term, the French president would have a lot to do, such as bridging the societal divide, dealing with inflation and dealing with the Ukrainian crisis. However, he and Prime Minister Modi can rightly take comfort in having put Indo-French relations on solid ground. “There are endless possibilities in the India-France strategic partnership as we continue to push the boundaries to be a force for global good” – India’s Foreign Minister couldn’t have said it better!
The author is a former envoy to South Korea and Canada and an official spokesperson for the Department of External Affairs. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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