Ambassador of France to India Alexandre Ziegler insists that the ‘win-win’ Rafale deal is “transparent”, asserts that the ban on religious symbols in French schools is not “segregating Islam” and says France shares India’s views on Facebook data controversy

Ambassador of France to India Alexandre Ziegler insists that the ‘win-win’ Rafale deal is “transparent”, asserts that the ban on religious symbols in French schools is not “segregating Islam”, assures that Jaitapur nuclear project will be the “safest in the world”, and says France shares India’s views on Facebook data controversy. Abridged Excerpts:

SHUBHAJIT ROY: The French president, Emmanuel Macron, recently visited India. How different was his visit from previous such trips?

It was an exceptional visit. We had planned it very carefully. From an official perspective, and in the way it was perceived by the French public, it was an outstanding visit. The chemistry between our two leaders during the visit made it exceptional. It was an occasion for President Macron to engage with both officials and the people of India. The symbolic part of the visit — the president’s encounters with students, artistes and people on the streets — added to the quality of the visit.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: One of the highlights of the visit was the resolve to deepen cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. A pact for the provision of reciprocal logistics support between the armed forces of the two countries was signed during the visit. How much of it was driven by the strong Chinese presence in the region?

What we are building with India is not aimed against anybody. It is a partnership of values and trust between two nations that are part of the same region. As part of the same region, we are confronted with the same challenges. Our strategic partnership is an old story. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of our strategic partnership.

Through President Macron’s visit we wanted to demonstrate that the partnership between the two countries was not just conceptual or political, but also an operational one. The partnership is focusing on a region that would be absolutely essential to the security of our two countries.

We are the only European country or Western country that is part of the rich Indian Ocean region. We have two million inhabitants in this region, we have territories, we have strategic interests etc. And, we (like the other countries in the region) are confronted with the same challenges of piracy, criminality and freedom of navigation. We are trying to ensure the freedom of our sovereignty in this region.

In terms of operational cooperation, there were two major agreements. One is a general security agreement which will allow us to exchange classified information and the second is the logistical agreement, which will offer reciprocal access to our armed forces’ bases — not only in the region but all over the world.

SUSHANT SINGH: The military logistics agreement that India famously signed with the US took almost 15-16 years to come through. How did France manage to pull it off in six months? Also, were you surprised by the controversy over the Rafale deal? The government here refused to share the price details of the Rafale fighters citing a secrecy pact with France. Is that true?

We launched the negotiations for the logistics agreement last summer and ended it weeks before President Macron’s visit. I don’t want a comparison with other countries, but it went on quite smoothly. There was strong commitment from the Indian side and the French side. The operational need for the agreement was very important, and that might be the reason why we succeeded in negotiating it in six months.

The Rafale deal is part of a wider picture. We have been cooperating on defence and defence equipment with India since it has existed as a country. We don’t see India as a market, we don’t look at India for revenue. We see India as a partner. In such a project (the Rafale deal), like in the case of all the other defence projects with India, we are looking to build a long-term partnership that will not only provide equipment to India but will also involve transfer of technology. We are two nations that strongly believe in the notion of independence. We (France) want to be part of India’s strategic independence. That is the way we have always seen defence partnerships with India.

Rafale was part of this picture. I was in India for the last six months of the negotiations. It was tough, but definitely a win-win. What I am convinced of is that India has chosen this aircraft only because it is the best. They have chosen it because of the degree of industrial cooperation, the degree of technological cooperation, the degree of confidence, the autonomy they would get in making the choice… and that’s what I would call a win-win agreement.

In any major defence deal there must be some confidentiality. I don’t see any major defence deal where you can reveal all the elements. At the same time, it has been transparent, and the negotiations were very serious. There is nothing to hide.

SHAILAJA BAJPAI: How would you describe President Macron?

He is young and conveys the image that he can understand the younger generation. The reforms he is undertaking will survive for a long, long time. He understands the future. He is energetic and has understood that the time has come where people in France are ready for reforms. He is doing what he said he would be doing. So not only is he reforming rapidly, he is sticking to his programme. Whatever he had promised, he is delivering.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: Have you finally resolved the land acquisition issues and protests over the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project?

We have been talking about this project for many years. Two years ago we achieved a major milestone — the decision to go for six and not just two reactors. It was quite a change in the economic and industrial model. What you commit for six reactors is not what you commit for two, in terms of transfer of technology, in terms of localisation, in terms of tariffs and so on.

The agreement between NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India) and (the French company) EDF (during President Macron’s visit), was also a major milestone. It’s what we call an industrial agreement. It’s a major thing. We are talking about a 10 Giga Watt nuclear power plant. Arriving at an agreement on this industrial scheme was a huge part of the work and it has been signed now.

Now, there have to be final commercial negotiations on tariffs and trade terms. That’s what we are going to do in the coming weeks. It has started already and we are going to focus a lot of energy on these negotiations. Our common aim, which is also clearly stated in the joint statement, is to be in a position to conclude the negotiations by the end of this year, so that we can officially start construction. The timetable is clear. (On land acquisition issues) India is a democracy and in any democracy a project of that size and scope has to be discussed. That’s quite normal.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: The present government in India has taken several measures to ensure ease of doing business. There are many French firms coming to India now. What has been your impression?

It is moving in the right direction. You should actually ask our companies about this, they can give a concrete answer. My feeling is that they are much more confident about the strength of the economic partnership they are developing with India. Obviously, decisions have to be taken on opening more sectors to FDI. There have to be decisions on creating a common market; the GST has played a major role. Of course, there is still a margin for progress, access to certain products is sometimes complicated… We are working on that, very openly, with the government, either bilaterally or with our European partners.

"We’re the only Western country that is part of Indian Ocean region. We have two million inhabitants in this region, strategic interests etc. And (like the other countries in the region) we face the challenges of piracy, criminality, navigation”

SANDEEP SINGH: There have been a series of terror attacks in France in the past few years. Have you been able to identify the cause of the sudden rise in such incidents?

We are two countries that have been badly hurt by terrorism over the past years. In India, several lives were lost in the 26/11 attacks. In France, traumatic attacks took place in 2015-16. We both know what it’s like to be confronted with this threat, and it is a worldwide threat. It has been the case all over Europe.

As two major democracies which have been confronted with this malaise, we have to act together. That is a major part of our strategic partnership. We have to be more rational in our fight against terror. To fight this global enemy, which is Daesh (ISIS), we have to attack their global financing channels, which are fuelled by criminal organisations, drug trafficking… We have to find ways to tackle online radicalisation.

You can always try and find specific reasons why terror occurs in one place and not the other. But we are confronted with a reality where there are global groups that want to destroy the values we stand for. The values that both India and France hold — democracy, freedom, our cultures. That is why what is more important is that we operationalise our cooperation, we exchange our experience, and fight against this global threat, which is not rooted in one specific village in France or India, but which is a major threat for both our democracies.

ANIL SASI: How do you see the Facebook data sharing controversy playing out in Europe?

We are two countries very attached to independent and strategic autonomy. At the top of the debate on strategic autonomy is the protection of data. The debates that are taking place in India are very similar to the debates taking place in our country. It is going to be a very strategic issue in the years to come. We are in the same boat on this and I think we share very similar views.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: What has France done on the social and security front to avoid future terror attacks?

There are steps that we must take to improve security, the police forces, the security forces… We have to tackle radicalisation at the roots, at the cyber level, which we are doing. There are steps that have to be taken on the European level… Not closing our borders, but a better control of passengers travelling from one country to another. There needs to be better coordination of intelligence services between other countries in Europe… These steps were taken right after the attacks in Paris and Brussels. There are steps that have to be taken globally, like combating the global network of financing. We have to convince countries that are safe havens for terror to actively combat terrorism.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: There is tension between Europe and Russia. Do you think this will have repercussions on the overall relationship that you share with Russia? And how do you see the US’s role in Europe?

Our international system has been based, since the end of the Second World War, on certain rules, certain environment, free trade and social norms. We strongly believe, and I think that is a belief we share with India, that the stability of the world depends on our ability to preserve this system. So, we have to respect it. That is our position and we will always be led by this unique preoccupation. It is our conviction that the stability of the world depends on our ability to have common norms. It is a statement that can apply to many situations.

COOMI KAPOOR: Fifteen years ago, after English, the most popular foreign language was French. But today it has been taken over by several other languages — German, Chinese, Russian. What is the reason for that?

There are around half a million people learning French in this country, either at schools, or at the Alliance Francaise centre or at a university. We want to double this number with the clear message that learning the language will not only open up France to these people, but it is also a window to the 300 million French speakers around the world. In 50 years from now the number will reach 700-800 million, including a lot of French speakers in Africa, a continent with which India is developing very strong economic and cultural ties.

COOMI KAPOOR: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also a student of Alliance Francaise. Did he exercise any of his skills in your presence?

I won’t disclose any secrets.