François Hollande has been the first French President to meet the Prime Minister of India before paying a visit to his Chinese opposite number. This is even more remarkable as the visit was decided in spite of the fact that New Delhi’s decision making process did not allow Paris to expect any contract to be signed. Certainly, the Rafale deal and the EPR (nuclear plants) have been talked about, but, for a change, that was not a trade-driven visit.
These rather unusual circumstances have allowed the leaders of both countries to concentrate on international issues. In the recent past, Paris and New Delhi have not been on the same page regarding the Middle East. France has been supportive of the Arab Spring to such an extent that it has requested Bashar al-Assad to resign in Syria and has intervened militarily in Libya to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi from power. New Delhi, by contrast, has not supported any resolution against Assad when it was a member of the UN Security Council, lest his departure would prepare the ground for an Islamist regime and because of a deep attachment to state sovereignty. Similarly, Paris has asked for more sanctions against Iran in order to dissuade Tehran to acquire the nuclear capability, whereas India is careful not to alienate a partner which may give it access to Afghanistan – and may be to some deep sea port – one day.
But both countries share common geopolitical concerns and have been in a position to reassert their strategic partnership during Hollande’s visit. Post-2014 Afghanistan is now on the agenda of all the countries which have been active in the country’s reconstruction, India and France sharing a development-oriented approach instead of a purely repressive one, as is evident from their investments in public infrastructures. Similarly, Paris and New Delhi share information and cooperate against terrorism from Mali to Central Asia. Last but not least, both countries worry about the growing presence of China in the India Ocean, a maritime space where France has territories – including La Réunion – and where their naval forces may strengthen joint manoeuvres and upgrade their fight again piracy.
But is the Indo-French relation primarily realpolitik? In fact, it has a special quality that is rooted in history and culture. Few names – some of them have been mentioned by Hollande in his speech in the honour of Amartya Sen – have strong evocative power: Le Corbusier, Romain Rolland, Jean Renoir (of whom Satyajit Ray was the assistant in the early 1950s). But that is the past – and culture is not what matters any more, anyway, at least for the middle class which is now in the driver’s seat and who may ask: What can France offer India today?
Since the liberalisation of the 1990s, the India’s elite – including the business community – tends to look at France, and at Europe, generally speaking. The future, for them, lays in Asia and, if they look West, they focus on the US. Certainly, the EU has been suffering for years from an economic crisis that should lead its decision makers to turn to Asia for emulating its current success. But both can learn from each other.