“It would be a scandal if two years from now, the Security Council of the United Nations were not to have space for India.” These words, spoken by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and top Indian Ministers behind closed doors on Monday provided the political content to a visit that has cemented the close relationship the two countries have as economic and nuclear partners. Where Barack Obama's endorsement last month of India's UNSC ambitions seemed scripted and half-hearted, Mr. Sarkozy's words, a senior Minister told The Hindu, were spontaneous and “came straight from the heart.”

In all, India and France signed seven agreements, including five in the area of nuclear energy, to pave the way for more intensive cooperation in this sector. Dr. Singh and Mr. Sarkozy, who presided over the signing of the pacts, also resolved to double bilateral trade to €12 billion.

During a 90-minute interaction, the two leaders touched on areas such as defence, infrastructure, energy, space, research and development, and joint ventures where cooperation could be stepped up. They also discussed cooperation in counter-terrorism and the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Asked about Pakistan's role in combating terrorism, Mr. Sarkozy noted that France had lost two of its nationals in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Along with economic development, he said, Pakistan must maintain the resolve to fight terrorism.

“I appreciate India's initiative to reach out to Pakistan after the attacks,” he said, hoping that the two countries would follow the example of the European Union, whose members buried centuries of hostility to develop and grow together.

In the area of defence, in spite of the presence of the CEOs of most major French armament companies, no agreement could be sealed.

“We are going to sign the agreement soon. We are delighted that India places trust in us,” Mr. Sarkozy said of the long-pending agreement to upgrade the Indian Air Force's (IAF) Mirage fighters.

He pitched for the French fighter Rafael, which is one of the six competitors for a mega IAF tender for fighter planes. He also offered to cooperate with India in developing a fifth generation fighter aircraft.

Dr. Singh, in his opening remarks, termed France “India's most important and reliable defence partner,” and acknowledged its supply of advanced defence technologies to the Indian armed forces.

Maharashtra reactors

The highlight of Mr. Sarkozy's visit was undoubtedly the pact for the construction of two French nuclear power reactors in Maharashtra. The number may go up to six, with Dr. Singh hoping that the nuclear park at Jaitapur would ultimately supply 10,000 MW of electricity to the Indian grid. He compared this potential to the total indigenous installed capacity of 4,000 MW from nuclear energy.

At the same time, however, Dr. Singh indicated that several details remained to be filled in for the agreement to become operational.

According to Indian officials, the pouring of the first layer of concrete for the Areva EPR nuclear power plant is still at least 18 to 24 months away. Apart from a commercial agreement with NPCIL, which still has to be negotiated, the absence of an India-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement means the French company cannot source the massive reactor vessel needed for the EPR from Japan Steel Works, its current fabricator. The Department of Atomic Energy officials say Areva will find it difficult to find a substitute for JSW.

“The framework agreement has been signed between Areva and NPCIL. There are issues with regard to other technical matters, including pricing. These are the subject matter of negotiations,” the Prime Minister said at a media interaction that followed the signing of the agreements.

France has offered to invest over €10 billion in India over the next two years if India liberalises the norms for the multi-brand retail and insurance sectors.

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