India, France and what keeps their ties ticking 

India, France and what keeps their ties ticking 

The formula is geopolitics without value judgements, and no pressure to align their respective positions

In 1998, India put France in what should have been a tough spot. Just a few months after French President Jacques Chirac had been the chief guest at the Republic Day Parade in Delhi, and Prime Minister I.K. Gujral signed India’s first ever Strategic Partnership agreement with him, newly elected Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced that nuclear tests had been conducted in Pokhran (Pokhran-II), in May. In the United Nations (UN) Security Council, French diplomats joined the P-5 countries in condemning the tests, but did not join (along with the United Kingdom and Russia) the United States-led move to impose sanctions on India. Nor did France scrap the Strategic Partnership Agreement.

Editorial |Something special: On 25 years of the India-France strategic partnership 

The philosophy behind the relationship

Throughout their relationship, New Delhi and Paris have built a tradition of joining each other’s national day parades — Chirac himself was guest at India’s Republic Day twice (his first appearance was in 1976), Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1980), Nicolas Sarkozy (2008) and François Hollande (2016) have been guests since, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2009) and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi were invited to the Bastille Day parade. While the purchase of defence equipment often overshadows the outcome of any of these big visits, it is the underlying philosophy of their engagement that propels India and France ties forward. Both countries have held on to three pillars in the relationship: non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, a steadfast belief in strategic autonomy as expressed by President Charles De Gaulle, and non-alignment, as expressed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and a refusal to pull the other into its own coalitions and alliances.

The awkwardness in 1998, after all, would have been nothing in comparison to Chirac’s visit to India in 1976. Not six months before that, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared the Emergency, and suspended freedoms in a move that was criticised across the world. But Chirac, who was the Prime Minister of France, saw no reason to cancel his visit. In December 1975, France had hosted the “Paris Conference on International Economic Cooperation”, that looked at the impact of the global energy crisis on developing countries that rose from U.S.-Arab tensions over the Yom Kippur war. India was one of a few invitees to the preparatory committee of the conference. When Chirac was in Delhi in January, he praised India’s role in bringing disparate global positions together. Space, nuclear energy and defence were, even then, the cornerstones of the relationship. In 2006, Chirac returned to Delhi, to lay the stage for the civil nuclear deal. When India won its waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008, it was France (it had done much of the heavy lifting for the waiver), and not the U.S., that India signed its first civil nuclear deal with.

Writing about his decisions in his memoirs, Chirac, who confessed a “youthful love and passion” for India and a teenage attempt at learning Sanskrit, said that for him the Strategic Partnership was “a means of establishing the primary role that India, by reason of its history, democratic choices, attachment to secularism, coexistence of different peoples, languages, and cultures, was called on to play in the aim of creating a more equally balanced world” (Chirac, Jacques, My Life in Politics, p.212).

Mr. Modi’s visit to Paris last week saw many of the same shades of the partnership: India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra pointed out that despite the dramatic visuals of violent protests across France last month over the mistreatment of immigrant communities, Mr. Modi had not hesitated even once in planning his visit. Neither did France bring up the European Parliament’s criticism of India over the violence in Manipur, or allegations of human rights violations, intolerance towards minorities and curbing civil society freedoms — these were referred to in the resolution adopted by Member of the European Parliament at the plenary session in Strasbourg during July 10-13, and on the day Mr. Modi landed in France.

The Ukraine war

On a major geopolitical stage, this combination of non-interference and non-alliances plays into France’s approach towards the Narendra Modi government’s position on the war in Ukraine. In March 2022, a month into this war, France co-authored a UN Security Council resolution with Mexico that sought to ensure unhindered humanitarian aid be allowed inside the conflict zone. Two rounds of negotiations followed, with hopes in particular of winning over countries such as India, given the humanitarian issue. The resolution was eventually brought to the UN General Assembly when that effort failed, but no word of disappointment was expressed by Paris when India abstained there. Through the war, President Emmanuel Macron’s own stance has been more complex than that of other western countries — even risking ridicule over the seven to eight extended calls he made to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a visit to Moscow in an attempt to talk Mr. Putin out of the war.

More recently, Mr. Macron suggested he would travel to South Africa for the BRICS summit in August, if invited, to make his case there. Understanding and sharing some of the complexity with which they view the world, New Delhi did not have differences with France over Mr. Macron’s visit to China in April this year, including his statement that Europe cannot be a “vassal state” to the U.S. on its China policy.

Strategic partnerships

In the strategic sphere, France announced publicly that it disapproves of a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-plus partnership plans, that would see the Trans-Atlantic alliance build direct ties with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and even India. New Delhi had already rejected the plan — External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has said that NATO “is not a template that applies to India”. As a result, despite a push from several countries, the NATO Summit in Vilnius this month dropped a mention of the project. The India-France Roadmap on the Indo-Pacific released last week further clarifies that neither side is attempting to pull the other into its other regional military coalitions. France was cool to plans for “Quad-Plus” coalitions, first floated in 2020, which were more or less dropped after the U.S.-France rift over the AUKUS agreement (the U.S, the U.K. and Australia). France is also the only country the Indian Navy has conducted joint patrols with so far, and future plans could involve the use of French international territories in Reunion, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and even India’s Andaman Islands, for port calls and reconnaissance by both navies on a bilateral basis.

While India’s ties with each of the P-5 countries is unique, the feature that sets apart the India-France relationship is this — geopolitics sans value judgements, and no pressure to align their positions.

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