Uttam Anand, PhD
When we think about France, a few images come to mind: the Eiffel Tower, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, the Channel, and so on. Similarly, when we think of India’s trusted alliance on the international scene, the word Russia comes to mind first, but over time, a country has emerged, which experts have begun to refer to as India’s new Russia. You must have guessed that France is now the strongest supporter of India’s emerging European Alliance. Many experts also believe that, given the improvement in relations between India and France over the last few decades, France will overtake Russia as India’smost reliable partners. So, the question now is whether France will really emergeas India’s long-term true ally?
Europe encounters a new India
Prime Minister Narendra Modi just returned from a three-day trip to Europe, where he visited three European countries. In the midst of Europe’s Ukraine crisis, this journey was extremely crucial for both India and Europe. Because it was India’s first trip to Europe since the Ukraine crisis began, the entire world was watching. As we’ve seen before, India’s position in this situation is based on India’s own national interests and geopolitical ambitions, rather than coercion from any powerful country.Despite the intense pressure and lectures from the United States and Europe, India did not believe it was appropriate to play with her own strategic interests, leading many observers to conclude that India would be weak in the eyes of the Western world as a result of its stance. Otherwise, India will be disregarded by Western countries; however, this visit disproved all of these predictions.The successful European visit of an Indian delegation following the visits of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Union President Ursula Von Der Leyen to India has shown us that Europe cannot afford to ignore India. Given the spirit with which the Indian delegation was welcomed in these countries, and the progress that has been made, it is clear that European countries want to strengthen their biliteral relations with emerging powers like India by breaking free from the dictates of the past. The expansion of biliteral links between India and European countries can be seen in the Inter-Governmental Consulate in Germany and the Nordic Summit in Denmark.
Shared Values and Bonhomie between leaders
The most crucial but most overlooked effect of this visit has been India’s key place in emerging European politics. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first destination on this trip was Germany, followed by Denmark and last, the most important and unique stop, France. The allure of Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with French President Macron in France was obvious evidence of their close chemistry.In 2017, French presidential elections were held, and Prime Minister Modi was the first international leader to personally congratulate President Macron by visiting France. Five years later, in 2022, French presidential elections were held again, and Prime Minister Modi was the first leader to meet President Macron. During this five-year period, the development of chemistry between these two leaders has never looked back; both leaders have invested as well in this friendship.Diplomatic visits have long been a regular element of the Indo-French relationship, and they have always emphasised the importance of each other during these visits. For instance, on a visit to New Delhi in 2016, French President Francois Hollande stated that he is totally committed to taking the strategic alliance between the two countries to new heights. Prime Minister Modi said during a similar meeting that India and France were made for each other. Apart from the covid years, President Macorn and Prime Minister Modi have exchanged visits every year.
In the Indian Constitution, the living spirits of liberty, equality, and fraternity were adopted from the ideas of the French Revolutions. And it is because of these factors that the two countries’ relationship has a unique charm. Today, we frequently hear the term “strategic partnership” used to describe a relationship between two countries that is an upgraded version of their biliteral relationship, in which the commitment between the two countries is considerably greater than their typical biliteral ties. Two countries or entities decide broad parameters of cooperation at various levels and in various areas. India has established strategic partnerships with a number of countries today.
India and France share similar views on freedom, democracy and liberty. Despite being the second largest Muslim populated country, India publicly supported France by opposing the radical groups and their terrorist activities. When a French schoolteacher was beheaded in the Charlie Hebdo case, India publicly supported France and stated that terrorism will not be accepted under any circumstances, regardless of the motive or circumstances. The Indian people’s support was also shown on social media in this matter.Whether it is the Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Israel-Palestine, Armenia-Azerbaijan, or Russia-Ukraine crises, issues in which India does not have a direct connection with, India has always maintained a strategic distance from it, where in the case of France, the entire Islamic world, particularly India’s two important alliances Saudi Arabia and Iran, were against the French government.
Mutual Understanding and Cooperation on Global Issues
On various issues of global interest, India and France has supported each other on the International Forum. In terms of the current issue, France has repeatedly criticized Russia for its action in the Ukraine crisis, but unlike other European countries, France did not press India to take a stance against Russia. When Indian Prime Minister Modi visited Paris a few weeks after Article 370 was removed in 2019, the entire western world was lecturing India, but only France was the only country that did not react negatively on India’s internal matters. Even when China convened a UNSC meeting on the subject of Kashmir, France supported India’s position on Kashmir. Even before that, France had backed the blacklisting of Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar when going with India, and as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France has always supported India’s demand for permanent membership, and so on.
The joint statement of this meeting indicates that they have reached a level of cooperation and mutual understanding. Following the meeting, both countries published a joint statement, which included France’s criticism of Russia. It was stated quite clearly in the joint statement that only France condemns this act, with France written in the next line. Both India and France desire that the problem be resolved peacefully as soon as possible.This demonstrates that India was not with France in condemning Russia, but they are working together to resolve the problem. This in itself demonstrates the mature relationship between these two countries; but, in the case of Germany, both countries published separate statements on the matter, indicating that India and Germany are not on the same page about the Ukraine Crisis.This is what distinguishes the relationship between India and France. Well, it was a result of President Macorn’s and Prime Minister Modi’s recent successful meeting, but the roots of this connection go far deeper than this visit or the personal component of Modi &Macorn, and these deep channels elevate France above Russia in India’s diplomatic corridor.
On strategic side, France has gradually emerged as India’s natural Indo-Pacific partner.For France, the Indo-Pacific is a geographical reality. Saint Piere, Miquelon, is a French overseas territory in the South Pacific that includes New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuma, and French Polvnesion islands, as well as Reunion in the Southern Indian Ocean. France possesses the world’s second largest SEZ, with 93 percent of it in the Indo-Pacific; there are around 1.5 million citizens and 8000 soldiers in this region, and China’s expansion in this region is not in interest of France’s security and strategic interests. In light of these direct stakes, France has joined the Indo-Pacific policy, making it the only European country to do so.
Evolving Defense Industry Partnership
In 1998, India and France formed their first strategic alliance, based on three pillars: civil nuclear energy, defense, and space. As a Western country, France has always backed India’s nuclear development. When India announced the Strategic Partnership in 1998, then-French President Jacques Chirac remarked that leaving India out of the global nuclear order was a major mistake that needed to be rectified. A few months later, India conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran, and while countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom were sanctioning India, France was the first western country to stand by India. In comparison to the rest of the world, France not only understood but also supported India’s security interests. India’s strategic partnership has grown much stronger.It is stated that France did everything possible at the time to safeguard India from the sanctions imposed by those powerful nations. When India was exempted from nuclear trading with the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008, France was the first country with which India negotiated a civil nuclear agreement. Apart from Russia, France was the only country that supported in the development of India’s nuclear reactor, and France has also made significant contributions to India’s space program.
Along with this, space sector collaboration remained a top priority, with a focus on addressing the sector’s rising economic and security problems, as well as rule-based cooperation. To secure the corporation, these two countries have developed a biliteral strategic dialogue.However, when it comes to defense, the relationship between India and France is an extremely delicate one. However, Russia has traditionally dominated this market. However, when India’s defense alliance was originally discussed in 1980, France emerged as a natural choice. After Russia, France is now India’s second largest weapons supplier. In this industry, France’s strategic capabilities and the Indian market have strengthened each other.The joint statement released by India and France at the end of the Prime Minister’s visit clearly talked about the greater involvement of France in “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India).”As seen in the timely delivery of the Rafale despite the pandemic, the two sides enjoy synergy in the field of defence,” the joint statement read.”Taking forward this momentum, and based on their mutual trust, both sides agreed to find creative ways for France’s deeper involvement in the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (Self-reliant India) efforts in advanced defence technology, manufacturing and exports, including through encouraging increased industry to industry partnerships,” the statement added.Both sides also welcomed the “ongoing intense cooperation across all defence domains” in the joint statement.
The special thing about Indo-French defense partnership is that although Russia provides weaponry to China, and America provides weapons to Pakistan, France only deals with India, making this connection even more unique. Instead of selling India’s foes to Pakistan and China, France has chosen to focus exclusively on India’s defense. We had an interesting illustration of this during the Indo-Pak war, when France went against America and supported India in this conflict; nevertheless, the cooperation of both countries in this arena can only be witnessed after India’s independence.Ouragan Aircraft, Mysteres, Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Alize Planes, Alouette Helicopters, and, more recently, Scorpion class diesel submarines and Rafale fighter jets have all been purchased by India from France. This relationship has evolved over time from that of a buyer and seller to that of two partners.
France firmly supports India’s indigenous military manufacturing, although the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other European countries are still unwilling to share technology with India, despite France’s heavy investment in India’s defense sector and technology sharing with India. The current Scorpion class submarines are an example of cooperative production supporting the self-reliant mission. Aside from that, India’s and French Army, Navy, and Air Force participate in joint exercises on a regular basis. Both countries also share naval bases in the Indian Ocean and collaborate on intelligence sharing, military drills, and cyber security to boost each other’s capabilities.If you recall, two days before Prime Minister Modi’s visit, there was news in the media that a French naval group had withdrawn from the P75I submarine project, prompting many questions about the friendship between India and France. However, according to a strategic expert, this news was presented in a half-hearted manner, and this deal was not cancelled two days before the PM’s summit, in fact, it was already eliminated 1.5 years prior to this project due to some technology requirements. Similarly, the Rafale Jet Controversy was aimed at their friendly connection, yet despite these difficulties, their relationship has improved.The collaboration, which began in 1998 with pillars such as defense, nuclear energy, and space programs, is now expanding into other areas like as counter-terrorism, climate change, green energy, solar alliance, cyber security, smart cities, maritime cooperation, education, and tourism.
France will also host the Indo-Pacific Forum in February 2022. This was also the height of Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine. These facts demonstrate how, despite the difficult situation in Europe, France’s focus remained Indo-pacific. There is no direct issue in any European or Indo-Pacific country, and these factors make France even more unique and dependable for India.The recently agreed AUKUS military alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States has worked to push France and India even closer together in this region. Australia had cancelled a $ 62 billion nuclear submarine deal with France as a result of the AUKUS arrangement, which enraged France. India was also unhappy with the alliance because America had never given India a nuclear submarine. Althougherstwhile USSR andlater the Russian federation has leased nuclear submarines and assists India’s domestic industry in this area, experts say that following this tragedy, France is now considering selling nuclear submarines to India.
For all of these reasons, IR pundits in India and abroad have started comparing France to Russia. For long, Russia has occupied a unique position in India’s geopolitics that no other country can replace, but now, France has also become a pillar of India’s emerging geopolitics, and the relationship with France has grown dramatically over time. The hurdles have been overcome, and as a result, both countries have developed a high level of confidence and are prepared to face future challenges together. In sectors like bilateral trade and people-to-people connectivity, India and France still have a long way to go to fulfil their potential. In overall, the leaders of both nations believe that they are growing into a mature relationship.Hence, geopolitics specialists are referring to France as India’s new Russia by underlining these factors.
Disclaimer: The author is a PhD in International Relations, and currently a senior fellow at the BRICS Institute New Delhi. The opinion expressed are his personal view and may not reflect the official view of the INSTITUTE.