Bilateral trade, business and entrepreneurship opportunities between India and France set to surge as Covid-19 pandemic accelerates the reshaping of the world order and the EU resets its foreign policies.
“As soon as I have conquered Egypt, I would establish relations with the Indian princes and, together with them, attack the English in their possessions.”
That's how French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte described his avowed intentions with regards to liberating the Indian subcontinent from the clutches of the British in the 1790s. Even though that ambition never got fulfilled, Indo-French relations - deeply rooted in history by the French East India Company, colonial pockets such as Chandernagore, Mahé and Pondicherry, and institutions such as the La Martinière schools and later the branches of Alliances Françaises that now dot the country - have evolved into a significant bond, so much so that France last week described India as its “foremost” Asian strategic partner.
While an Indo-French partnership always conjures up rich literary links and widespread cultural admiration for each other, India has emerged as one of the most critical trade and defence partners for France in a world where the multipolar order is increasingly under threat. France is currently a major source of FDI in India, with more than 1,000 French establishments operating in the country with a total turnover of around $20 billion.
Bilateral trade bloomed in the pre-Covid era, with both sides aiming at raising their mutual investments in goods to 15 billion by 2022 - a strategy in which SMEs and mid-cap companies will play a crucial role in economic and commercial exchanges.
It's against the backdrop of this strategic partnership and the shared common history that one must assess the two notable developments in recent weeks in Indo-French relations.
French defence minister Florence Parly visited India a couple of weeks back to attend a ceremony in Ambala to induct the first five Rafale jets into the Indian Air Force (IAF), as well as to engage in deep dialogues with her Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The first batch of the French Rafales arrived in India on July 29, four years after India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France to procure 36 of the aircraft. Those fighter jets have not only helped forge close defence cooperation between the two nations but also stand as the glistening symbol of ongoing manufacturing partnership projects between France and India.
Coinciding with Parly's visit, India, France and Australia also held the inaugural trilateral dialogue on the Indo-Pacific with a view to what they said “[underscoring] the goal of guaranteeing peace, security and adherence to international law”. Attended via teleconference by co-chairs Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary of India; François Delattre, secretary-general of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs; and Frances Adamson, secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the first trilateral dialogue saw discussions on “geostrategic challenges, [the countries′] respective strategies for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and prospects for cooperation in the region in the context of the public health crisis.”
As both these initiatives indicate, the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic aftermath has accelerated trends in reshaping the world order and this is manifesting itself in Indo-French relations as well, against the larger backdrop of the European Union's foreign policy churn and Brussels' new postures vis-a-vis Beijing, Brexit and trans-Atlantic trade. “In an international context marked by uncertainty and the increase in unilateralism, France's priority is to propose an alternative: a stable, multipolar order based on the rule of law and free movement, and fair and efficient multilateralism. The Indo-Pacific region is at the heart of this strategy,” said the French foreign ministry in a statement.
With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finding a responsive partner in French President Emmanuel Macron in the defence of a multipolar order as a cornerstone of bilateral partnership, it is trade, business and entrepreneurship which will benefit immensely from those deepening ties. That's the reason why industrial manufacturing, technological partnership and Make in India featured prominently alongside maritime security, counter-terror and defence cooperation in Parly's conversations with Indian ministers and officials. The fact that she was accompanied by top executives from Dassault Aviation, Thales Group, Safran, and MBDA, is also a pointer to the increasing interest among French companies and defence giants to invest in India.
The onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic has not only led to an increased urgency in consolidating the common ground between India and France, but also led to a convergence of their mutual challenges. With French GDP growth taking a major hit, public finances under the strain of severe deficits and the shadow of the Eurozone crisis lurking in the background, it's therefore no wonder that French investors are renewing their lustful gaze at the lucrative market potential of India.