Indo-French romance to bloom during Hollande's India trip

Paris, Feb 8 (IANS) The Indo-French romance will blossom with the arrival of French President Francois Hollande, accompanied by nearly half a dozen ministers and CEOs of over 60 leading French enterprises, in New Delhi on a two-day visit that will be his first trip to any country outside of Europe and the Francophone Africa.

"This visit is extremely important for both the countries as this is the first visit by Hollande, after his electoral victory in May 2012, to any country outside of Europe and Francophone Africa.

"It is also a standalone visit to India and hence it is a clear sign of the commitment from the French to continue to strengthen the strategic partnership with India," Rakesh Sood, ambassador of India to France, told IANS.

The preparation for the visit began in June last year when President Hollande met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Los Cabos in Mexico.

Besides defence and nuclear energy, the other key issues which will be discussed include urban development, education, research and development, pharmaceuticals and renewable energy.

"These are the sectors where the French are focussing on and this is where an enormous potential for cooperation that remains to be realised," Sood said.

He also dismissed outright all the speculation in the media that any major purchase contracts -- for the French multi-role combat aircraft, Rafale, or for the French nuclear power reactors -- would be signed during the visit.

The negotiations on both the fronts have been going on for more than a year and sources on both French and Indian sides indicated that the negotiations were moving ahead steadily, but it was unrealistic to put a short-time horizon in view of the complexity of the deals involved.

The multi-billion dollar Rafale deal is the world's single biggest defence deal in history and perhaps also the biggest deal in which nearly 85 percent of the equipment would be manufactured in the buying country. The negotiations are advancing in five sub-committees, which are looking at all aspects including price and technology transfer.

Sources indicate that a signature is more likely in the second quarter of this year.

The nuclear reactor deal is more complex than Rafale because while Rafale has been flying and has displayed its prowess in war situations in Libya and Mali, the European Pressurized Reactors (EPR) are still an untested technology as the first EPR is only under construction now.

The French also acknowledge the "complexity".

"There are quite a number of issues involved here. The Indian regulations and of course the fact that there have been protests against this project add to the complexity of the deal, but we are certain that the preparatory work will shortly commence and that the final deal would be concluded soon," sources at Elysee, the Presidential Palace, told IANS.

While these two high profile sectors would see complex negotiations, one sector where the French are finally getting into their act is urban development. The CEOs of a number of large French companies in the domain are accompanying the president and there are high expectations of a string of deals being signed on the sidelines of the visit.

These include a deal involving Alstom, Thales et al for the Bengaluru Metro.

On the strategic front, Hollande will discuss a host of issues, including the situation in Mali, Syria, Af-Pak and also global issues like climate change and the WTO talks.

On Syria, both sides say that they have very different perspectives of the situation and how it should be dealt with, but both admit that the relationship is strong enough to allow them to hold different opinions.

"We will be telling our Indian partners how we see the situation and how it has been blocked as President (Bashar al-)Assad has just refused to hold a dialogue or take any steps to resolve the situation while thousands of civilians have been killed in the country. We know that India has a different perception of how it should be handled, but our relationship is so strong that both the sides know that they can have a different opinion on some matters and each will respect the other's perception," sources in Elysee told IANS.

Hollande's official visit begins Feb 14 with the inspection of the Guard of Honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan, followed by an intensive dialogue, first closed-door and then a broader meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Hyderabad House. This will continue into a working lunch.

In the afternoon, the president will address Indo-French business leaders followed by an interaction with the French community of Delhi at a reception at the residence of the French ambassador. In the evening, Hollande will attend the State Dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan. He will also meet Sushma Swaraj, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the UPA.

On February 15, Hollande will address a gathering at the Nehru Memorial, dealing with art and culture, and where he will also meet Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and honour him with the French Legion d'honneur.

Around noon, the presidential jet will take off for Mumbai where Hollande will visit an R&D centre set up by cement maker Lafarge and then head to another business meet, at the Taj Mahal Hotel, where he will exhort the Indian business to invest in France.

(Ranvir Nayar can be contacted at ranvir.mediaindia@gmail.com)

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