INS Kalvari undergoing sea trials, the stealth submarine was inducted into the Navy in Sept 2017

Le Drian visit cements preparations for Modi visit to Paris

On Friday, French foreign minister Jean Yves le Drian left India after a three-day visit to India which covered a wide range of bilateral and multilateral subjects. The visit, third of a senior French minister in four months, was the final preparatory meeting between the two nations for the likely visit of Narendra Modi to Paris next month.

After a pandemic-forced hiatus which put a severe limitation on high-level bilateral meetings between India and France, the two nations seem to be in a rush to catch up on the lost time and revive the momentum that has been building up in the bilateral ties over the past decade, but especially since Narendra Modi’s first visit as Prime Minister to Paris in April 2015.

Now, it seems the two countries are banking on a repeat of the exercise to inject fresh energy into the relations from the top with a summit meeting between Modi and the French President Emmanuel Macron. Highly placed sources say that the two countries are in serious discussions for finalising a packed agenda for a visit by Modi to Paris on May 9, after he concludes the EU-India Summit meet that will take place on May 8 at Porto in Portugal.

Indeed, Modi will have a handful of issues to discuss with Macron and the two nations have been quietly thrashing out an agenda covering a very wide range of topics – from intensive defence cooperation to the long-pending negotiations over building of six EPR nuclear reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra as well as broadening the bilateral cooperation in technology, environment, urban development and climate change. In all of these areas, France has several products and services that it is keen to sell to India.

Focus On Military Sales

Defence is set to occupy the centre stage in the agenda during the meeting just as was the case during the 2015 visit by Modi. That visit changed a lot in the Indo-French relations and perhaps most importantly for France it removed the bottleneck in the long-pending negotiations over purchase by the Indian Air Force of Rafale, Dassault’s multi-role medium-range combat aircraft. Taking a bold, but highly controversial and non-transparent route, Modi agreed with the then French President Francois Hollande to enter into a government to government deal for the purchase of 36 Rafales, terminating ongoing negotiations for 128 aircraft.

Since then, there has been a major growth in French interest in India, partly because India’s purchase of Rafales prevented a closure of the manufacturing plant of Rafale and a premature death of the much-touted aircraft.

France has been pressing India, formally and informally for a follow-on order on Rafales, with two more squadrons immediately and ultimately the aim of going back to the initial number of 128 MMRC aircraft, which anyway are needed by the IAF to manage its rapidly dwindling strength with the phasing out of MiG-21s, Jaguars and other aircraft over the next decade. IAF needs to build its strength rapidly from current 30 squadrons to the sanctioned 42.

It is not just Rafales that would be discussed. France is also keen for India to buy more submarines for its Navy, on the back of USD 3 billion deal for six submarines that was signed in 2005. Already three of the boats have been delivered by Mazagaon Docks Limited, Mumbai, which has been building the submarines under licence from the French constructor DCNS, now called Naval Group, to the Indian Navy, with the target of completing the remaining three deliveries in the next two years.

Deepening Naval Ties

Currently, the Indian Navy operates 17 submarines, including two nuclear powered ones on lease from Russia. Of these 13 are aged between 17 and 32 years, most of which need to be phased out sooner than later. Indian Navy would need at least 24 more submarines to join its fleet within a decade if the Navy is to be able to maintain a presence on Eastern and Western coasts and also be effective in countering the rising Chinese naval incursions in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, in close proximity to Indian interests. Seeing the shortage, France is keen to sell more Scorpenes as well as other boats to the Navy.

It is not just submarines that the Indian Navy needs. It is also facing a severe shortage of hardware across board. The Navy has been desperately looking to acquire 111 advanced Naval Utility Helicopters to augment its rotary wing fleet. However, this has remained on the drawing board for close to a decade and Airbus Helicopters is keen to sell its own Panthers (Airbus AS565 MBe) to the Navy.

To some extent, fresh naval deals with France would make sense due to the enhanced cooperation between the two navies that have recently concluded joint exercises including La Perouse, a multilateral exercise held in the Bay of Bengal on April 5-7. The two navies have also been conducting bilateral exercises for a long while now.

Other items in French defence bouquet for India could include missiles, torpedoes and the like. All of these have been under discussions for a long while and the summit in May could provide a breakthrough, or at least the French would hope so.

EPRs Also On The Table

France has been desperately hoping to sell the six EPRs (European Pressurised Reactors), third generation 1600 MW reactors that the French giant Electricité de France has been desperately trying to sell to India and any other country that may be a taker. EDF has been facing severe challenges in getting even a single EPR going in France itself and its project in Finland also has faced huge cost and time overruns. There are serious safety concerns about the EPR in France with locals opposing it tooth and nail.

Yet, India has been engaged in discussions for over a decade of this untested and unproven reactor, which is amongst the most expensive in the world. But as he did for Rafales and Dassault by buying aircraft that no other country was buying at the time, Modi may simply go ahead and sign on the Jaitapur deal to resuscitate beleaguered EDF and its EPRs.

Le Drian and external affairs minister S Jaishankar also discussed concrete initiatives like a new trilateral dialogue with Australia. France also concretised its adhesion to the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative launched by Modi.