Deep Bonds, Solid Ties

By Editor 2019


His Excellency Alexandre Ziegler, Ambassador of France to India, speaks about the mainstays that enrich the strategic partnership between the two countries – spanning a wide range of sensitive subjects: the Rafale deal and other aerospace projects, A320 Neos of the Airbus and boom in civil aviation, Scorpene-class and latest generation submarines, Jaitapur civil nuclear power project, space programmes including interplanetary missions to Mars, Venus and asteroids and training future Indian astronauts, maritime security and combating terrorism. He attests to a substantial influx of investments, as French companies fully incorporate the Make in India principle, and reveals plans for promoting skill development for students in the aviation sector and development of satellite telecommunication research, besides an exciting calendar of major events for cultural exchange. Excerpts from the interview:

Your Excellency, France and India have traditionally enjoyed a warm relationship in every sector. How robust is that strategic partnership now?

Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler:  That’s absolutely right. France and India have been preferred partners since many decades. In fact, just last year we celebrated 20 years of our strategic partnership. The State visit of President Emmanuel Macron in March 2018 attests to the vitality of our bilateral relations and the very high degree of trust between our two countries. This is borne out in our close cooperation on very sensitive subjects: counter-terrorism, space, cyber security, defence equipment, including co-development and transfers of technology, and civil nuclear energy. These are fundamental aspects of our strategic partnership. We also have significant commonality of ambitions for maritime security and cooperation in the Indian Ocean – France is also an IOR country through Reunion Island. Further, France has always considered India as a crucial partner for stability and security in the region.

Both our countries are very much attached to their strategic autonomy. Our two countries cooperate at par and respect each other’s independence and sovereignty. It’s perhaps because of this that our strategic partnership is progressing so well.

In recent years, cooperation in aerospace has been strengthened, especially regarding the purchase of Rafale fighter jets by India. Could you speak on the other major aerospace projects France and India are currently engaged in?

The Indo-French aerospace cooperation is a longstanding one. It dates back to the years following India’s Independence. It is based on two mainstays that enrich our strategic partnership, one operational, the other industrial and technological. The first draws on the excellent cooperation between our respective Air forces, its high point being the bilateral exercise, Garuda, which has been alternately held in France and India since 2003. The second mainstay is Indian Air Force’s consistent use of combat aircraft of French origin since the very first order in 1953 for Dassault’s Ouragan fighter jets (christened as Toofani in India). The Toofanis were followed by the Mystère IV, then the Mirage 2000. All these aircraft proved to be outstanding during the conflicts India faced over the past few decades. The Mirage 2000s are being completely overhauled with latest-generation electronic systems and weapons, and will serve India for at least another 20 years. Lastly, the inter-governmental contract signed in 2016 for the acquisition of 36 Rafales gave an unprecedented impetus to our aerospace and defence partnership. The first Rafale will be delivered to the Indian Air Force in September this year, and I am delighted at the prospect of seeing this plane in Indian skies soon, contributing to ensuring India’s security. This will be a source of great pride for France.

As for civil aviation, the European company, Airbus, has an order book of 530 aircraft, mostly A320 Neos, (around 3 planes per month since two years, i.e. almost fifteen years of deliveries at the current pace). Based on the annual traffic growth of 8.1% (as compared to 4.4% globally), Airbus estimates that India’s requirement for commercial aircraft could touch 1,750 airplanes over the next twenty years.

Apart from this industrial partnership, France and India have signed technological cooperation agreements in the civil aviation sector.

The Navies of India and France also work closely. One joint programme is the ‘Varuna’ exercise. Tell us about the major ongoing Naval projects in India with France as a partner, especially the Scorpene project, which is one of the landmarks in the ties between the countries.

Just like the one between our Air Forces, the cooperation between our Navies is also longstanding and very active. This, too, is structured around a bilateral exercise, Varuna, which will see its next edition in India with the arrival of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in May. Apart from this exercise, our navies maintain an extensive operational cooperation in the Indian Ocean. On the industrial front, Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd in Mumbai has been building six conventional propulsion Scorpene-class submarines under licence and in cooperation with the French shipbuilders, Naval Group (formerly DCNS). The first to be rolled out, the INS Kalvari, was commissioned in December 2017 during a ceremony presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was a highly symbolical date as it coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Navy’s submarine arm. India’s second Scorpene-class submarine, INS Khanderi, is currently in the process of finishing its sea trials. We expect it to be commissioned shortly. Another four remain to be delivered by 2022. As you can see, France adopted the Make in India principle even then. With regard to future projects, the Naval Group has responded to the RFI for Project P-75(I) for building six latest generation submarines with additional capabilities as compared to the Scorpene.

France and India are cooperating for a civil nuclear power project too. What are future plans in this sector?

The signing of an agreement between NPCIL and EDF for the construction of six nuclear power EPR-type units at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, during President Macron’s State visit marked an important step particularly with regard to laying down the industrial way forward. The active discussions that took place thereafter then enabled EDF to submit a complete techno-commercial offer to NPCIL on 15th December. During his India visit, Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, and his Indian counterpart, Mrs Sushma Swaraj, noted the progress made since this March 2018 agreement and chart an action plan along with the corporations for the successful conclusion of the negotiations. The six EPRs would have a total production capacity of almost 10 GW, which would hence be a significant contribution to India’s goal of producing 63 GW of nuclear power by 2030. And it would also be a major contribution to the target of producing 40% of its power from non-fossil sources by 2030, in keeping with its commitments made ahead of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Jaitapur will also contribute to Make in India as it involves localization of production, transfer of technology, joint research, and training.

The two countries have an active programme in the space sector also. Could you list some recent developments?

France and India have been continuous strategic partners in space for over half a century. We have recorded outstanding success stories over the years, from French sounding rockets launched in Kerala to jointly developed rocket engines, the operational in-orbit Indo-French satellites for climate monitoring, as well as the launch of the heaviest Indian satellites from French Guiana on Ariane 5. Future plans include a joint satellite constellation for maritime domain awareness, new breakthrough climate observatory missions, as well as joint development of reusable launch vehicle technologies. ISRO and CNES, our respective national space agencies envisage further French participation in the upcoming Indian interplanetary missions to Mars, Venus and asteroids. And since several months now, CNES teams have been working to support ISRO for training and preparing future Indian astronauts.

France and India are working together to combat terrorism. Could you explain the new programmes in this regard?

Counter-terrorism is one of the pillars of our strategic partnership. We know that in challenging times we can count on each other. India has expressed its solidarity with us following the attacks that struck France over the past years. On its part, France has very firmly condemned the terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab, which clearly had cross-border origins. It has been a few weeks since we expressed our grief on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The emergence of ISIS in South Asia is yet another reason to strengthen our cooperation on counter-terrorism.

In concrete terms, we have constant and very operational exchanges on the threat posed by terrorism. We have a bilateral working group that brings together all the actors concerned with counter-terrorism as well as, inter alia, cooperation on investigations between our respective intervention units (GIGN on the French side, and the NSG on the Indian side). And, with Prime Minister Modi, we have decided to enhance our cooperation for preventing and fighting radicalisation, especially on the internet and social networks. We will also work more to fight against the financing of terrorism. France had organised an important conference on this subject in April, which sparked unprecedented international mobilisation and gave birth to the ‘Paris Coalition’, of which India is a member. We must work together for its second edition, which will be organised by Australia in 2019.

Economic relations between the two nations are booming with France making significant investments in India. Which areas of trade do you expect maximum growth in the coming years?

French companies have a significant presence in India. They have around 550 subsidiaries with 100 local offices or facilities across the country, employing over 3,50,000 people. This presence will grow further in future with a substantial influx of investments, as French companies have fully incorporated the Make in India principle.

The French companies in India are active in most sectors of activity – in services, namely computing, information and communication technologies, pharmaceuticals, aeronautics, electronics, mechanical and electrical construction, the automobile industry. The renewable energy sector, which is expanding exponentially in India since the Prime Minister made it one of his priorities, stands for great opportunities for French power companies, and I’m sure that they will seize these opportunities. I also see bright prospects in three new strongly growing sectors: urban development, in which many of our companies are already present in India and can offer innovative technologies for urban transport, railways, renewable energy, waste and water treatment; the food processing industry, where many of our SMEs specialized in transformation technology, agricultural research, and cold chain development are now established in India or are eager to do so; and finally, healthcare, a sector where we have an offer that is both competitive and technologically advanced.

French companies invest in India, manufacture in India, innovate in India and succeed in India. I cite, for example, Renault, Capgemini – which has crossed the 1,00,000-employee mark, L’Oréal, Saint Gobain and Michelin, which have opened cutting-edge research centres; or Schneider Electric, which has heavily invested in innovation and professional training. Our companies are in India for the long term, and have continued investing regardless of the global economic situation. They thus show their preparedness for the future and that they have confidence in India’s future.

Another major area of cooperation is culture. What are the new plans?

Our cultural exchanges with India are not new. They were remarkable, but limited to a few subjects and a few occasions. After Bonjour India, we have come much further. Culture is no longer a show, a palace or an exhibition that we go to see for entertainment or pleasure. It is one of the great drivers of a modern economy. It’s millions of jobs created each year in the world. In France, for example, it accounted for a turnover of 44 billion euros in 2017.

We have therefore launched new initiatives: the Indo-French Heritage Lab, because heritage, architecture, and smart city are key topics, where we can draw only benefits from intense cooperation. Textiles and fashion, for their economic importance, and because these areas also make it possible to practically improve the condition of women, which is essential for the development of our societies. CreativExchanges, because we want our artists, writers, thinkers and creators to have the time to work with their Indian peers. We have a marvellous calendar ahead of us: an exhibition project devoted to Gerard Garouste in New Delhi in 2020, then an exhibition in Paris on Indian modernism on the great Indian master from Paris, S.H. Raza, in 2021, India as Guest Country at the Paris Book Fair in March 2020, France at the New Delhi Book Fair in 2022, and so many other events.

 There are several scientific and technical projects involving French and Indian personnel. Could you reveal the latest programmes planned in this sector? 

Thank you for mentioning that. We are currently working on two very specific Indo-French networks. The first one will focus on skill development for students in the aviation sector to promote a more skilled workforce by enhancing students and researchers’ abilities in line with dedicated national missions. There is a need to create an institutional mechanism for research development and accreditation with the aerospace industry. The second programme will work on the development of satellite telecommunication research for new high-performance flexible payloads at low costs.

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