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French are coming to jet, set, go

| CLAUDE ARPI
Published : Jan 21, 2016, 10:55 pm IST
Updated : Jan 21, 2016, 10:55 pm IST

India and France have always had a special relationship. I still remember freezing winter of 1982, when I travelled by train to Delhi from warm South India to meet President François Mitterrand.

India and France have always had a special relationship. I still remember freezing winter of 1982, when I travelled by train to Delhi from warm South India to meet President François Mitterrand. In those days, there was no terrorist threat and it was rather easy to approach a head of a state.

I could eventually speak to the French President and what surprised me most was his knowledge of Indian philosophy; he knew about Sri Aurobindo and was very curious to know what a young French man was doing in Pondicherry.

Of course, times have changed. Terrorism, not philosophy is on everybody’s mind today; tighter security does not allow one to speak to a President anymore, but in the case of France, the deep bond has remained, even if the exchanges have lately shifted towards security and strategic issues.

A great symbol of the closeness between India and France is the fact that for the first time since Independence, foreign troops will participate in the Republic Day parade and the soldiers will be French, belonging to the 35 Infantry Regiment, based in Belfort in eastern France.

While some participants will come from Afghanistan, others are already in India, where they participated in the “Shakti-2016” joint-exercises with the 2 Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Army in Bikaner in January 2016.

Defence spokesperson Lt. Col. Manish Ojha explained the context: “The size and scope of this combined exercise is unparalleled and will be characterised by regular, realistic, academic and natural exchange which would form a part of Shakti-2016. The broadened and unprecedented scope of the exercise stands as a testament to the well-knit people to people and military to military ties between France and India.”

The 35 Infantry Regiment is one of the most decorated units of the French Army, presently associated with the 7 Armoured Brigade. Its 1,200 men often undertake special operations outside the French territory, but also internal security ops. They are famed as the best infantry troops in France and the first equipped with the latest armoured vehicles.

On January 26, India will be reciprocating the honour given to the Indian Army when its troops marched down the Champs Elysees on July 14, 2009 on the occasion of the French Bastille Day.

On December 16, 2015, the French presidency issued a short communiqué announcing that President Francois Hollande would be the chief guest on the occasion of India’s 67th Republic Day celebrations: “This invitation conveys the excellent quality and dynamism of the strategic partnership between India and France, which will be further strengthened on this occasion. This visit will also follow on from the Paris Climate Conference, at which India played a decisive role in reaching an ambitious agreement.”

Let us be clear, Mr Hollande is not coming to India to discuss with Prime Minister Narendra Modi Indian philosophy or even the change of climate, though the Paris Conference, for which France worked hard for several months, has been an example of fruitful collaboration between the two countries.

Mr Hollande comes to India to take the next step in the Rafale deal. Of course, France, like India, has lately been the victim of terrorism.

As the French government was recovering from the November 13 horrific attack and commemorating the killings of several journalists of Charlie Hebdo, the symbol of the French “liberté” of expression, attackers from the other side of the Indian border, stepped into the Pathankot airbase and created havoc for nearly three days. On January 4, France condemned “the attack perpetrated against the Indian military base in Pathankot”, adding: “We extend our condolences to the victims’ families as well as to the Indian government. France stands alongside India in the fight against terrorism.”

The Rafale deal remains nonetheless the raison d’être of the busy French President’s visit to New Delhi.

The “deal” is far from being sealed. While Union minister of defence Manohar Parrikar vaguely remarked. “It’s closer to completion”, refusing to go into the details. His French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian is quoted by Reuters saying “nothing has been finalised as yet.”

It probably explains the sudden rush of Ajit Doval, the national security adviser, to Paris “to talk about terrorism”. Well, it is doubtful if the NSA’s brief was “terrorism” alone, especially since he cancelled an important “border meeting” with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.

Incidentally, the “philosophical” 1982 visit of Mr Mitterrand triggered the sales of the first Mirage 2000 from Dassault in the mid-1980s. Interestingly, the French have recently rediscovered their old Gaulish belligerent genes.

France is today involved in several operations outside its territory (Chammal in Syria, 3,500 men; Sanaris in Central African Republic, 900 men; Barkhane in the Sahel, 3,500 men; Daman in Libya, 900 men, etc.).

To this should be added 10,000 Army personnel (Operation Sentinelle) deployed in France after the terrorist attacks on Paris in January 2015.

Hopefully, the cultural and other aspects of the relations will also be covered during the French President’s visit. It is significant that Mr Hollande will spend his first day in Chandigarh, the first “Smart City” in India, created by a French man, Le Corbusier.

Jawaharlal Nehru once told a gathering of town planners about the famous French architect of Chandigarh: “There is no doubt that Le Corbusier is a man (with) a powerful and creative mind, he may become extravagant occasionally, he may produce extravagances occasionally, but it is better to have that than have a person with no mind at all.”

Though “Smart City” has become a fashionable slogan, how many town planners are today ready to follow in the steps of Le Corbusier

Creative minds are today required to make the scheme a success. Why can’t France, which has committed loans of two billion euros over the next three years to support smart cities and sustainable development in India, participate in new Chandigarhs

Solar energy is also a field where France and India have decided to work together. An International Solar Alliance was launched in Paris in November 2015. Its secretariat will be hosted in the premises of the National Institute of Solar Energy in Gurgaon. “This day is the sunrise of new hope — not just for clean energy, but for villages and homes still in darkness; and for our mornings and evenings filled with a clear view of the glory of the sun,” said Mr Modi at the launch of the alliance in Paris.

And what about a train à grande vitesse (bullet train) between the city of Le Corbusier and the Indian capital That would be very smart. The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.