India's views do count for France

PARIS, NOV. 1. The French Foreign Minister, Mr. Hubert Vedrine, today becomes another Western personality in a long line of international leaders to visit India and Pakistan amid continued efforts to maintain stability in the region and find a viable solution for Afghanistan.

In an attempt to reassure India and underscore the ``special nature'' of the relationship Paris enjoys with New Delhi, officials here are at pains to point out that Mr. Vedrine is visiting first India and then Pakistan, not the other way around.

But Mr. Vedrine will have some explaining to do over France's continued political and financial support to Pakistan, especially in the wake of a visit to Paris by Pakistani Finance Minister, Mr. Shaukat Aziz, who was promised French help, both on a bilateral basis as well as within the Paris Club, which brings together western creditor-nations and international financial institutions.

India would also like to receive some assurances on the recent appointment by Mr. Vedrine of Mr. Pierre Lafrance as his special envoy to the region. While Mr. Lafrance, a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, could be seen as a good choice because of his familiarity with both the region and its languages (he speaks fluent Arabic, Persian and Urdu), his pro- Pakistan positions have caught New Delhi off guard.

Indian embassy sources in Paris told The Hindu: ``By the way this visit has been scheduled, with New Delhi as the first stop, the French are definitely giving the signal that India has an important role to play and that its views and opinions count.''

French diplomats point out that Mr. Vedrine's visit should not be compared to that of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, or the German Chancellor, Mr. Gerhard Schroeder. ``Mr. Blair is acting as the U.S. President, Mr. George W. Bush's personal ambassador. Mr. Schroeder's visit has been on the cards for a long time and he has, because of the present situation, merely added Islamabad to his schedule. Mr. Vedrine's visit could be compared to the visit to the region by the German Foreign Minister, Mr. Joschka Fischer, and therein lies the difference. Mr. Fischer did not visit New Delhi. The French Foreign Minister is visiting New Delhi first, before going on to Pakistan,'' a French official told The Hindu.

Reliable sources say the French are extremely worried about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into wrong hands. ``The reason Paris feels it has to bail out Gen. Musharraf at this point in time is because of the deep concern surrounding Pakistan's atomic weapons. I do not think India should be worried about French arms sales to Pakistan. There is no doubt Pakistan will set off a new arms race in the subcontinent with a part of the aid package it has received. However, I think it will opt for American weapons.

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