France, Vive Not So Much Difference

There was a time when France mattered a hell of a lot to India. It was the dissident member of the Western world that India could count on to resist the imposition of sanctions (after nuclear tests) and cast the odd veto (when Kashmir would come up).

In return, India had to buy the odd bit of weaponry. But it is important to realise that Paris played this role because it believed in promoting a multipolar world, designed to dilute the overweening power of any country in the world.

Giving India a helping hand helped it in its general desire to slay hegemons.

The problem today is that France is less interested in promoting that role. The flip side is that India doesn’t need that kind of assistance as much as it once did.

Why is the hegemonic business somewhat less important? The United States is in relative decline and, at times, in serious trouble.

The world has so many emerging powers coming up that the problem is keeping track of them. What really hurts is that the original French vision was of a European Union that would be the primus inter pares in a tripolar world.

Right now, the EU is struggling to hold on to its existing accomplishments and the idea of it becoming a coherent polity is not being taken too seriously by anyone.

As one French defence ministry official told me once, “The days of us giving the Americans a hard time are over.”

The other side of the story is that since George W. Bush decided to carve out an exception for India in the nuclear nonproliferation regime, the special role of France for India is also much reduced.

New Delhi keeps finding countries who want to do it a special turn.

France is a dependable vote for India as it tries to enter various international fora, especially those related to the nonproliferation regime.

In theory, with India’s opening up of its economy there are now even more economic opportunities for both countries than ever before. And they are happening. L’Oreal is one of the most successful French firms in India.

Tata Consultancy Services and other Indian service firms are doing well in France. But the Indo-French economic relationship is punching well below its weight. Belgium trades more with India than France.

Indian investment in France is about one billion dollars. There are barely 3,000 Indian students in France.

And what was surprising about the Sikh turban dispute was that France had a Sikh community at all.

Much of the economic relationship between the two countries is government to government — reactor buys, airplane acquisitions.

The poor economic relationship has many reasons but the sense in the Indian private corporate sector that France doesn’t have too much to offer. There is technology, quality and so on.

But French stuff is expensive and struggles to be competitive in the global system. Renault-Nissan’s head, Carlos Ghosn, put it well when he said they had forgotten “frugality” — how to make good stuff for less.

It could almost be said this applies to French foreign policy. Old formulae are not working in a new world order.

Paris needs a new India formula, but its hunt for billion dollar contracts is obscuring it from finding one.

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