With both India and France supporting a multi-polar world order led by democracies, France has been a supporter of India’s claims to permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
French President Emmanuel Macron gracing India’s 75th Republic Day on January 26, 2024 as the chief guest was a unique reciprocal exchange following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to France on its National Day in July 2023. A 93-soldier marching contingent and a 33-member band contingent, both of the famed French Foreign Legion, marched down Kartavya Path. It also included six Indian Legionnaires.
This visit by President Macron marked the 25th-anniversary of the India-France Strategic Partnership. Also, this was his third visit to India as President of France, and the sixth time a French leader has been invited as a guest of honour at India's Republic Day, the highest for any country. This tradition began with President Jacques Chirac in 1976, followed by Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1980, Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, and Francois Hollande in 2016.
Six months earlier, Bastille Day, France’s national day, on July 14, 2023, was conspicuous by a major Indian presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and 269 Indian military personnel, who participated in the impressive parade which passed down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées from Place Charles de Gaulle, centred around the Arc de Triomphe, to the Place de la Concorde, where President Emmanuel Macron stood with PM Modi, important members of his government and foreign ambassadors to France.
Of the 269 Indian military personnel at the Bastille Day Parade, Indian Army was represented by the Punjab Regiment contingent, led by Capt Aman Jagtap. The Indian Navy team on parade comprised of four officers and 64 sailors led by Commander Vrat Baghel. The Indian Air Force (IAF) contingent of 72 personnel included four Rafale fighters, two C-17 Globemasters. The fly past and marching by the IAF air warriors on Bastille Day follows a long association that the two nations share in air power. The IAF has also operated multiple French aircraft starting with the Ouragan, followed by fighter aircraft like Breguet Alize, Mystere IVA, SEPECAT Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and now, the Rafale. Helicopters like the Alouette-III and Lama continue to be flown by aviators of all three Services, especially in the remote Himalayan areas. The IAF marching contingent at the parade was commanded by a woman officer, Squadron Leader Sindhu Reddy, who is an accomplished helicopter pilot.
Relations have long history
The India-France relationship, with a long history, is one which is worth taking a long look at. While a substantial post-Independence part of this relationship covers strategic-military cooperation, there are strong cultural bonds that were formed in the pre-colonial till World Wars period. There are some interesting vignettes of early periods of the India-France relationship.
In 1674, the French East India Company set up a trading centre at Pondicherry, which eventually became the chief French settlement in India. On 9 June 1952, the Government of India took control of Chandernagore, which, later in 1954, became part of the Hoogly district of West Bengal. In May 1956, a treaty of cession was signed by India and France which was ratified by the French parliament in May 1962. On 16 August 1962 India and France exchanged the instruments of ratification under which France ceded to India full sovereignty over the territories it held. Pondicherry and the other enclaves of Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam came to be administered as the Union Territory of Puducherry from 1 July 1963.
In the 18th and 19th centuries a number of Indian rulers requisitioned French soldiers to join their armies to fight the British/ East India Company. Jean-Francois Allard was a highly trusted general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who modernised his army and formed the Fauj-i-Khas (special brigade), which in 1826 comprised 10,000 men, into 3 cavalry regiments, 4 infantry regiments and one unit of modern artillery. In 1827, 15,000 men were under Allard’s command. In Saint Tropez, where Allard hailed from, a statute of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was installed in October 2016, by its Mayor, Henri Prevost-Allard a descendant of Allard.
Indian war contribution
In World War I (1914-18) the French got over their long-standing enmity against the British and fought together as Allies against the Germans. It was in that war that the French expressed their gratitude to many of the 1.5 million Indian troops whose arrival and participation turned the tide of the German onslaught against France. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French Commander at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (10-13 March 1915), in which 4,200 Indian soldiers died , acknowledged the contribution of Indian troops saying: "Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way, they made the first steps towards the final victory”.
In World War II, 2.5 million Indian Army, Navy and Air Force personnel participated in all theatres. Again, the French people and soldiers, who fought alongside Indian troops, praised their role, which again was a major war-winning factor.
Early French strategic support
Post-World War II, when the British and the Americans continued to pursue wartime information censorship on atomic energy and India was trying to acquire nuclear technology, it was the French who responded. Frédéric Joliot-Curie, then chairman of the French atomic energy commission (CEA), visited India in January 1950 and made offers for technical cooperation that were not just extraordinary but also unprecedented. It initiated negotiations for the first bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement outside the Manhattan Project. At a special meeting of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) held in New Delhi on January 17, 1950, Joliot-Curie offered to share technical information on the purification of uranium, graphite reprocessing, and designs of a low power reactor in exchange for India’s export to France of thorium, beryllium, and uranium, among others.
Such an offer was unthinkable at a time when the US was keen on maintaining tight control over nuclear technology and information while the UK and Canada adhered to a similar approach.
It was after India’s second nuclear test in May 1998 that the India-France relationship warmed up. One major catalyst for this was that at a time when many nations were judgemental about India’s test, France’s stand was that it was India’s prerogative to conduct such a test based on its threat perceptions.
Start of strategic partnership
With both India and France supporting a multi-polar world order led by democracies, France has been a supporter of India’s claims to permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). France had also been a great supporter of India for membership to all the four multilateral export control regimes, namely, the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and the Australia Group (AG). France’s support was instrumental in India’s accession to the WA, MTCR and the AG. Also, both nations are strongly in the war against global terror.
In 1998, the relationship between India and France took a new turn, when both nations entered into a strategic partnership based on military, space and civil nuclear cooperation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to France in April 2015 highlighted New Delhi’s burgeoning ties with Paris and underlined India’s attempts to diversify its defence purchases. It also re-emphasised the congruence that has existed between the two countries during most of the Cold War. France gradually emerged as a formidable technology supplier to India in all three strategic realms: military, space and nuclear energy. India’s vast market and its appetite for advanced strategic technology make it rather attractive to France. In May 2022, the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi visited France during which both the countries signed a number of MoUs and issued Joint Statements reflecting upon ever deepening cooperation between the two countries. In March 2018, the French President Emmanuel Macron visited India during which 14 business-to-business agreements were signed.
Firming of military cooperation
Regular talks take place between the service chiefs of both nations. An annual defence dialogue at the ministerial level has also been initiated in 2018. Besides the regular military exercises between France and India, codenamed Shakti (Army), Varuna (Navy) and Garuda (Air Force), there are many others which are conducted from time to time.
India has been buying defence equipment from France, the most famous of them being Rafale aircraft and P-75 Scorpene project. P-75 Scorpene Project: The contract for six Scorpene submarines from M/s DCNS was signed in October 2006. There is a Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (DRAL) manufacturing facility at Mihan in Maharashtra, which is a joint venture between India’s Reliance Group and the French aerospace company Dassault Aviation. On July 14, 2023, The Indian government announced the selection of 26 latest-generation of Rafale for the Indian Navy. These will be in addition to the 36 Rafale already in service.
India and France have been cooperating in the space domain for many years now. ISRO and CNES (the French space agency) have conducted joint research programmes and satellite launches. Examples of joint Indo-French satellites: TRISHNA, Megha-Tropiques, etc. France is a major supplier of equipment and components for the Indian space programme.
Civilian nuclear cooperation constitutes one of the cornerstones of the Indo-French strategic partnership. The cooperation agreement of 30 September 2008 between India and France on the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, sets the framework of our exchanges with India not only at the industrial and commercial levels but also in R&D, nuclear safety, and education/training.
On the industrial front, AREVA, which in 2008 sold 300 tons of nuclear fuel to the public electricity utility Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, submitted a tender for two EPR reactors (2 x 1650 MWe capacity) for the Jaitapur site, along with their fuel supply. Eventually, the site is due to house four other similar reactors (10,000 MWe capacity). Regarding R&D, various bilateral agreements provide for exchanges between French organisations (CEA, ANDRA) and Indian ones (DAE, IGCAR, BARC, HBNI) in the fields of reactor safety/security, basic research, radioactive waste management, non-electrical applications of nuclear energy. Cooperation in Education/Training includes a master’s degree in Nuclear Energy. Further, exchanges have been established between the nuclear safety authorities of the two countries and their technical supports.
On the multilateral front, India is participating in major international R&D projects: Jules Horowitz Reactor (nuclear fission) and ITER (thermonuclear fusion).
While Indo-French cooperation has always been an irritant to China, the level to which it reached on Bastille Day 2023, has rattled China, even more so as it followed PM Modi’s visit to the US. The 2024 visit by President Macron to New Delhi as Republic Day chief guest is bound to add to China’s ire.
(The author is a former spokesperson of the Defence Ministry and Indian Army. Views are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)