President Hollande is very different from the ebullient Sarkozy, who was much admired in India, but as Mali has shown, he can take firm decisions in his own quiet way
French President Francois Hollande, accompanied by his journalist-partner Valerie Trierweiler, several senior ministers and an impressive business delegation arrives in New Delhi on February 14, Valentine’s Day, for a two-day state visit that will take him to the Capital and Mumbai.
India’s decision to depart from protocol and accord France this rare honour (there has been no reciprocal state visit by the Indian Prime Minister since President Nicolas Sarkozy’s last state visit in 2008) underscores the importance New Delhi attaches to its relationship with Paris, which has become a major strategic partner. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the guest of honour at the Bastille Day ceremonies in 2009, but that was a short working visit.
Range of issues
During his two-day trip, Mr. Hollande will be accorded all state honours, including an official banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan. He will hold talks with Dr. Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi. In Mumbai, he will address a CEOs Forum meeting. Since the exact composition of his delegation has yet to be finalised, few details are trickling out about his visit except that there is likely to be an accent on accrued exchanges in higher education, research and the environment, alongside discussions on international and regional issues, particularly Afghanistan. France recently played host to a round of talks between the Afghan government’s representatives and the Taliban, and New Delhi would be keen to learn more about the road map post-2014 when foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
The economic relations between the two countries will also be a major chapter and the French side is expected to ask India to make haste with its signature of the 10 billion-Euro-plus contract for the Rafale (multi-role combat aircraft), now that Dassault Aviation has reportedly agreed to almost all Indian demands, including a strict clause concerning technology transfer and offsets.
Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s ebullient former President, had managed to impress India’s business community with his determination “to double trade in five years” and his relentless salesmanship of French expertise whether in the defence, scientific or nuclear fields, with a readiness to transfer technology, convinced New Delhi that Paris had finally understood India’s economic and strategic importance.
Mr. Hollande is quite another kettle of fish. He is a quiet, measured man, capable of rapier-fine wit when least expected, but he is no showman and, unlike Mr. Sarkozy, studiously shuns any public display of his private life. The contrast between the two men could not be sharper. Mr. Sarkozy had held several major ministerial posts including those of interior, budget and finance and accumulated international experience before becoming President.
Mr. Hollande, on the other hand, has spent most of his career as the General Secretary of the Socialist Party and has never before held a ministerial post although he was a close adviser to President Mitterrand and several successive socialist governments.
During his 11 years as Party General Secretary (1997-2008), Francois Hollande led the Socialist Party to victory in election after election — parliamentary, European, regional, municipal. And finally, in May 2012, he beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy to become the President of France. Many of his ministers are personal friends who, like him, have been members of the French Socialist Party since their early student days.
He remains something of an enigma, a behind-the-scenes actor, including to his own people. The French themselves are beginning to discover that he is no “Flanby” or milk pudding — a nickname they gave him because of his mild manners, but surprisingly capable of bold and decisive action, like the current French military operation under way in Mali where he has already made a quick trip. Overnight, his approval ratings have gone up and yesterday’s Flanby has become something of a hero.
Despite the fact that policies do not generally change overnight with a change in leadership, personalities do matter. Mr. Sarkozy had stamped the Indo-French relationship with his own zest and enthusiasm, leaving many Indian business leaders from the CEOs Forum speechless with adulation. Now New Delhi has to get to know President Hollande, to find out if he has the same drive, the same desire to invest politically and economically in India, to further strengthen the already excellent strategic ties and build upon the strong foundation laid by President Chirac in 1998, when he showed exceptional goodwill and understanding following India’s nuclear tests.
President Hollande is expected to be accompanied by a large delegation, including several key ministers. Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister, is the one certain name on the list. Other names include those of Pierre Moscovici (Finance) Jean-Yves Le Drian (Defence), Aurelie Filippetti (Culture) Nicole Bricq (Foreign Trade), Delphine Batho (Environment), Genevieve Fioraso (Higher Education and Research) and the young but very competent government spokesperson and minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud Belkacem, who is of Moroccan origin. Undoubtedly, the female component will be exceptionally high.
The French too are expecting a great deal from this trip although there are unlikely to be any big ticket announcements such as the final signature for the Rafale contract or movement on the EPR nuclear reactors for Jaitapur.
‘Open and frank’
Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid who visited Paris recently (the first visit by a Foreign Minister in the second UPA government), told The Hindu in an exclusive interview: “The main purpose of my visit was to take stock of the situation so that we in India are much better prepared for his visit. We wished to indicate that we are looking forward to a very meaningful visit by President Hollande. How could I describe the President? I would say he was comfortable, a very comforting personality and he made it so very easy to talk to him. I felt that every message he gave was one of tremendous openness and frankness. The ministers displayed a similar openness. There was trust and a certain desire to move very far ahead. I can imagine that it would be difficult for any new president to have the special flavour and touch of Mr. Sarkozy, but I think Mr. Hollande is very special and we are determined to make this visit a resounding success. We might have differences over certain issues, Iran for example, but it’s the frankness and openness of dialogue that is important. I think they value our ability to say to people things that are important which others cannot say, because they do not have any communication links with them. We talked about Syria, Mali, Iran’s nuclear programme and they did not push us on any of these. We do have a careful, cautious approach and they accept that.”
The glitch lies on the economic side of the relationship. According to statistics released by the French government, the volume of bilateral commercial exchanges between the two countries, which had seen a net increase of over 30 per cent in 2010, went up by just 5.8 per cent in 2011 to touch €7.46 billion. French exports to India decreased by 4.5 per cent and amounted to €2.8 billion. India’s exports to France, on the other hand, rose by almost 13 per cent in 2011 to cross the 4.7 billion mark. French market share in India too fell by one per cent, mainly because of delays in aircraft deliveries. France is India’s eighth largest foreign investor and there are over 700 French companies working in India. However, France does not appear to be an attractive investment destination for India, which injected in France just about €1 billion of the roughly 75 billion it invests abroad.
There have been other problems. France is in the grip of a recession. Taxes have risen dramatically and unemployment continues to grow. France’s tough labour laws made Wipro’s Azim Premji remark that he would not invest another cent in France until there was more flexible labour legislation. The public quarrel between one of Mr. Hollande’s ministers, Arnaud Montebourg, who took up cudgels against Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian citizen who is essentially a European entrepreneur, painted a cruel picture of “Indian” businessmen as being bad employers. Its grave financial situation forced car maker Peugeot to shelve plans for a new plant in Gujarat; other industrial disputes arose that created a degree of bad blood in France about India’s “predator” industrialists.
Indian legislation of FDI in retail should also open up greater investment opportunities. A recent agreement on labour laws reached between the Employer’s Federation of MEDEF in France and the major unions should make life easier for people like Mr. Premji, who like France as an investment destination but are afraid of the constraints its labour laws impose. Both sides agree that small and medium French companies should play a bigger role in India if the two countries are to attain their true commercial and trade potential. That could happen if the defence deals between the two countries go through in a speedier manner. There is a lot more in the pipeline than just 124 combat aircraft.