France and India have historical civil and military ties that are formidable in their depth and the future is even brighter. Kamal Shah, In conversation with French Ambassador Emmanuel Lanain.
1: France is one of the strongest strategic partners of India. What are the broader areas and technology domains where India and France could further enhance the existing, time-tested partnership?
India is France’s foremost strategic partner in Asia. Our partnership is grounded on exceptional mutual trust, common democratic values and enduring shared interests. Its origins date back to India’s Independence, when our two countries launched fruitful cooperation projects in areas of sovereignty such as aerospace. For instance, one of the first aircraft the Indian Air Force was equipped with in the 1950s was the French-made “Ouragan” jet fighter – named “Toofani” in India.
Our strategic partnership was formalised in 1998 when an annual dialogue at the highest level was set up. It has stood the test of time and that of adversity: it is remarkable to see how India and France have constantly stood by each other when facing difficult times. This was the case, for instance, when France unfailingly supported India when it carried out nuclear tests in 1998, as well as during the Kargil War. Similarly, France and India have always shown solidarity when faced with terrorist attacks: in 2019, France spearheaded multilateral efforts to list Masood Azhar under the UN’s 1267 Sanctions Committee after the Pulwama attack. More recently, France and India helped each other during the most critical phases of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mutual help during such a crisis is also what strategic partners do.
These strong foundations are what enable India and France to cooperate in the most sensitive domains and work to enhance each other’s strategic autonomy. The Rafale fighter jets acquired by India are an emblematic example: through them, France shares the same combat-proven, best-in-class equipment that our own forces use, a capacity and technology that is at the core of our sovereignty.
But today, our strategic partnership encompasses much more than defence cooperation. Together, we have both the ambition and the means to provide common responses to the great challenges of our times that impact the security of our countries. This is the case in the Indo-Pacific, where our cooperation has grown at an extremely rapid pace these last three years, building on long-standing ties between our two Navies. We are also taking a forward-looking approach and working together on cyberspace issues, and emerging security challenges in space. In the United Nations Security Council, we are seizing the opportunity of India’s presence at the table in 2021-2022 to jointly champion our vision of a rules-based multilateral order, while continuing our push for a reform of the Council that would give India a permanent seat. Finally, global challenges such as climate change and environment protection are not beyond the purview of our strategic partnership: quite the contrary – they, too, bear security implications, and we believe that the strength of our bilateral relationship can act as a multilateral force for good to spur global action on these issues. Indeed, in these times of international instability, I am convinced that the Indo-French strategic partnership is our best asset to uphold our values and shape the world to come.
Q 2: How do you see the current situation in Indo-Pacific, especially with the Chinese aggression? What role is France (with India) playing in it? How do you see it developing in the immediate future?
The Indo-Pacific region is at the crossroads of vital issues in terms of security, global trade, and climate change. With several island territories, 1 500 000 French citizens and a strong military presence, France is itself a nation of the Indo-Pacific, a neighbour of India in this crucial region, and likewise fully committed to keeping it free, open and secure. This is the commitment that our leaders, President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, enshrined in their Joint Vision for the Indo-pacific adopted in 2018.
Since then, we have taken major steps to operationalize this vision and act jointly. We are now able to share sensitive information on maritime situational awareness thanks to the presence of a French liaison officer at IFC-IOR or in Abu Dhabi as part of the EMASoH operation. The joint drills between our two navies are gaining in complexity and enabling new levels of confidence and interoperability. The latest example is this year’s Varuna exercise, wherein the Indian Navy’s guided missile frigate INS Tarkash was integrated in France’s Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group. Moreover, in April 2021, France invited India for the first time to join the French-led “La Pérouse” naval exercise involving the US, Japanese and Australian Navies.
Indeed, working with like-minded partners and in multilateral fora is a major part of our strategy. In order to join forces in regional organizations, France supported India’s joining the Indian Ocean Commission as observer member, while India supported France’s accession to IORA. France has also joined Prime Minister Modi’s Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative and taken the lead of the “maritime resources” pillar. Lastly, in September 2020, France, India and Australia launched a new trilateral dialogue on the Indo-Pacific, which has proven remarkably fruitful; within less than a year of its inception, it has already been elevated to the ministerial level (May 2021) and served as a platform for coordinating our positions on a wider set of issues before the June 2021 G20 ministerial. This format holds great promise for taking concrete action to uphold our common values in the Indo-Pacific and we are keen on keeping up this momentum of engagement, including at Leader-level.
Q 3: India has always been very sensitive and focused on its strategic autonomy. How do you look at it, especially when there are multiple crucial domains where Indo-French strategic partnership is increasing rapidly?
France understands and shares India’s drive for strategic autonomy. It is the same logic that drove France, in the decades following Second World War, to develop sovereign capabilities in a number of strategic areas, such as nuclear energy, defence and space. France and India both believe in the value of independence and in a multipolar order: we reject unilateralism; nor do we accept playing the role of junior partners in great power rivalries.
Hence, France has always been ready to support India in achieving its strategic autonomy goals. This motivation underlies our long-standing defence industry cooperation with its many contributions to “Make in India” endeavours, as well as our flagship project of building the world’s largest civilian nuclear energy plant in Jaitapur. We are also keen on cooperating in the technological sectors that will be key for a nation’s independence in the future, such as artificial intelligence and supercomputing. In this respect, I am glad that the French company, Atos, has been providing India with world-class supercomputers.
Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has acted has a wake-up call, exposing the weaknesses of asymmetric economic interdependence. The answer to this challenge – and I believe France and India see eye to eye on this – is not resorting to protectionism but rather building more resilient supply chains and ensuring free, open and fair global trade. In this respect, India and the European Union both stand to gain from closer trade and investment ties. The pandemic has also shown that healthcare is also a pillar of sovereignty. That is why France’s solidarity operation to support of India during the second wave in May 2021 included the delivery of 27 French-made oxygen generator plants, which have made 27 Indian hospitals oxygen-aatmanirbhar for the next 12 years.
Q 4: India is developing its new theatre commands, with extra focus on Cyber & Space, these being the new domains of warfare. Since France has consistently played an extremely supportive role in increasing India’s land, air & maritime domain capabilities, how do you see the Indo-French strategic partnership playing role in Cyber & Space?
These domains bring new challenges for both our nations. They entail significant opportunities but also potential security risks. They have become essential components of a nation’s strategic autonomy and call for appropriate international governance.
In order to better face these challenges, over the past decade France has developed two dedicated commands: the COMCYBER and the Space command. The first brings together 3400 persons and has been growing since its establishment in 2017; the second was set up in 2019 and is attached to the Air Force command.
India is, of course, also developing its own strategy in these areas, which provides a wide scope for bilateral cooperation to underpin the strategic evolution both our countries are facing and join forces at the multilateral level. Several initiatives and exchanges have already been launched. In 2019, our Leaders agreed on a joint roadmap on cybersecurity and digital technology that embodies our common vision of “tech for good” and our commitment to an open, reliable, secure, stable and peaceful cyberspace. On this basis, we hold an annual cyber security dialogue, we share information between our respective cyber security agencies, and we work together in multilateral fora, such as the United Nations, to promote international norms of responsible State behaviour in cyberspace. In parallel to these cybersecurity issues, we also work on strengthening ties between our tech and innovation ecosystems, for instance, through the recent launch of an Indo-French start-up incubator. This feeds into our overall cyber and digital cooperation, which has rapidly become a new pillar of our strategic partnership. In the same spirit, we are now working on a developing a similar cooperation on strategic space challenges.
Q 5: There have been a few reports on Indo-French Space Security Dialogue. Could you please throw some more light on it for our readers, with details like its goal, plan and any timeline?
A few months ago, the Chairman of ISRO said that “France is the first partner of India in space”. We are extremely proud of this partnership, which goes back decades. Indeed, our two space agencies – France’s CNES and India’s ISRO – have been working together since the 1960s, beginning in the field of launchers and expanding to many other areas, notably the construction and operation of joint satellite missions for climate observation, such as OCEANSAT-ARGOS and TRISHNA. France has also committed to supporting India’s space exploration endeavours, from the 2025 Venus mission to the Gaganyaan human spaceflight programme.
We believe that this long-standing, outstanding civilian space cooperation can serve as model for the establishment of cooperation on space security challenges, too. In a context where space is becoming increasingly congested and contested, we see India as a natural partner for addressing the need to protect space assets – on which many civilian and military activities depend. We build climate observation satellites together, it’s only natural to also work together to protect them!
This is what we are working on. In March 2021, France held the very first military space exercise in Europe, called “AsterX”: right after that, France’s Chief of Joint Space Command, Air Vice Marshal Friedling, paid an official visit to India to open a channel of dialogue on this issue. In April, the French Foreign Minister visited ISRO’s headquarters and highlighted the importance of fostering convergence between our positions on this issue at the strategic and political levels, as we already do in other areas of security and defence. Based on these foundations, the operational modalities of a strategic space dialogue between France and India are now being worked out. It is a very exciting prospect. Our goals are ambitious: developing a shared assessment of threats, coordinating our response strategies, and joining forces at the multilateral level to promote international norms to keep space free and secure.
Q 6: In the recent past, while selecting the crucial strategic defence platforms like fighter jets and submarines, India has chosen French platforms over other major countries’ platforms. Both these domains are now again up for a larger contracts like 100+ fighter jets and P75i. How are the French companies and government poised for it? How do you see France having an edge over other competitors in these respective domains?
In terms of industrial defence cooperation, the French approach has always been to offer, whenever possible, to have part of the production carried out in India. For example, after the delivery of the first two Scorpene submarines, the transfer of technology organized by Naval Group has enabled India’s Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders (MDL) to take up the construction of the next four submarines on their own. This is one of the many examples through which France has demonstrated its ability to transfer French technology to produce defence equipment in India. Consequently, the French industry is able to offer India world-class technology and high performance equipment right in keeping with the “Make in India” policy.
Q 7: How do the French government and French companies look at India’s Make In India plan? How do you see the French government playing an important role in helping India in its Self-reliance plan?
As far as the industrial partnership is concerned, the Indo-French industrial cooperation in the aerospace and defence sector is very developed and active. As a matter of fact, Make-in-India has been a reality for the French industry for many years, particularly for equipment such as helicopters, missiles, submarines and aircraft engines, and the French government has always been fully supportive of this approach. Building French-origin aerospace and defence equipment on Indian soil dates back to India’s immediate post-Independence years, and this approach is being continuously strengthened.
As of today, around 60 French aerospace companies are physically present in India and run 25 manufacturing facilities, which employ several thousand skilled workers across the country. There are, of course, the big groups like Airbus, Dassault Aviation, Thales, Safran and MBDA, but also more and more of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). French companies are always amongst the most numerous at events such as Aero India. France’s aerospace industries have chosen this country: they invest, innovate, and make in India.
Beyond the defence sector, French companies have heavily invested in India to produce goods and services locally for the Indian market, or for exporting to other countries. 600 French companies are active in India, employing more than 4,00,000 people in all sectors and in all regions of India. This illustrates the confidence of French companies in India’s robust economic potential and their commitment to contributing to the long-term development of the country.
Q 8: France is one the leading countries in aero-engines & combat aircraft engines development in the world. India has been working on an indigenously developed combat aircraft for a long time. Any plan or proposal by the French side to India in developing/ co-developing these?
Being one of the few countries mastering the technologies for combat aircraft engines, France is ready to support India’s acquisition of the know-how and technologies to develop and independently produce its own combat aircraft engines.
Q 9: Looking at India’s huge aviation sector potential, the scope of MROs business in the aviation sector has been one of the key focus areas of France. India has not achieved major success in this area despite being one of the major aviation hubs in the world. Would you like to suggest some points on the planning and policies fronts, in order to help India develop its untapped potential in this domain?
Indeed, the potential of aviation sector is considerable. India is poised to become the third largest market worldwide for civil aviation in the near future. Therefore, there is an obvious potential as well for activities linked to it, like MRO. A decision taken by the Indian authorities a few months ago concerning the GST status of MRO activities will help this sector. The French company, Safran, which is already active in India, is ready to take this opportunity to develop the MRO industry.