The many facets of the bond that held India and France together in 2020

By all means, 2020 was an exceptionally memorable year for the special friendship and the 22-year-old ‘strategic partnership’ between India and France, ranging from the political and diplomatic levels to cooperation in defence and space sectors. Here, I explore how.

Unprecedented joint patrols in the Indian Ocean in February

The story of Indo-French cooperation in 2020 began with a coordinated patrol (CORPAT) by the Indian and French navies, decided in the previous year, operating from the French island of Reunion in the western Indian Ocean for the first time, in February, focusing on the stretch between the East African coastline and the Strait of Malacca. Until that point, India has engaged in such joint patrols only with its Asian maritime neighbours and had rejected a similar offer made by the US, which operates a base in Diego Garcia, before.

India’s entry to the Francophone Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) as observer in March

The 1982-established, Mauritius-headquartered Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) is the oldest region-specific grouping of five nations in the western section of the Indian Ocean comprising of Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Madagascar and France (Reunion), all French-speaking and the organisation is mainly led by France.

India, geographically closer to maritime South and Southeast Asia, had to wait till 2020, despite being a regional power on its own terms and a widely-accepted ‘first responder’ in the Indian Ocean Region, to get admitted to the IOC as an observer along with Japan and the United Nations. Notably, China has been an observer since 2016.

The island-states in the western Indian Ocean, closer to Eastern African coastline, bear a French colonial past and speak French. India has always concentrated its multilateral diplomatic engagements in the region with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), established in 1997.

The overseas department of Reunion, that largely justifies French presence in the region, is not just any other far-away territory of France, but it is rather the closest slice of France and Europe for India in its own backyard, the Indian Ocean.

Renowned journalist and writer of Asian affairs, Bertil Linter, write about the island of Reunion, “Everyone here is a French citizen and the island is part of the European Union. The currency is the Euro and the flags of France and the EU flutter over government buildings … people vote in French elections. The nine-hour flight from this island in the Indian Ocean to Paris is considered domestic…” 

This makes France an important power in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. By combining all its overseas territories and departments, France has the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world, of which 90% lies in the Indo-Pacific region.

India’s observer status at the IOC since March, apparently materialised with French support, opens up a wide range of new possibilities for maritime cooperation between these two maritime powers.

India’s heroic welcome for French-made Rafale fighter jets in July

In spite of all domestic controversies in India surrounding the purchase and deal-making of the Rafale fighter jets, the first batch of these combat-proven aircrafts, made by the French aerospace company Dassault Aviation, arrived in the northern Indian air base of Ambala in July, it was received with a heroic welcome.

It was also the time when the tensions with China in the high Himalayas were at a new high following a border skirmish that occurred in the previous month killing 20 Indian soldiers. The optics were so high in India, in particular, as the public started to see France as a mighty friend on India’s side against any more potential Chinese misadventure.

The second batch of aircrafts arrived in November, and a total of 36 Rafale omnirole fighter jets would be handed over to India by mid-2022 under a deal signed in 2016 amounting to nearly 600 billion Indian rupees.

Visit of the French Defence Minister to India in September

In her third official visit to India since 2017, France’s Defence Minister, Florence Parly, personally showed up in India in September, amid the pandemic, to attend the operational induction ceremony of the first batch of the Rafales by the Indian Air Force, further strengthening military-to-military partnership between the two countries.

During the ceremony, the French Minister said France has always stood beside India both through good and bad times and reinforced willingness to cooperate in maritime, air, space, and cyber domains and in the wider Indo-Pacific region, of which France is also a major power, by virtue of its presence in the western Indian Ocean. Today, France considers India as its foremost Asian strategic partner.

India’s support for France following multiple terror incidents in France in October

Narendra Modi was the first non-Western world leader to openly support French President Emmanuel Macron in his efforts to tackle the threat posed by jihadist radicalisation and extremism within France, following the brutal killings by beheading and stabbing that occurred in the French cities of Paris and Nice in October.

Even before, the personal bon-homie between the two leaders was at full display during Modi’s France visit in August, last year and during Macron’s India visit in March 2018. The fact that both countries face the common threat of jihadi terror brings them closer to cooperate in counter-terrorism and security.

Rising cooperation between the French and Indian space agencies

In September 2020, French space agency CNES (National Centre for Space Studies) has confirmed that France will take part in the Venus mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), scheduled for 2025, and for the first time a French payload will be flown on an Indian exploration mission.

This comes as a result of the Joint Vision for Space Cooperation agreed between India and France two years back, in 2018. France has also assured its support for India’s first human space flight mission, Gaganyaan, planned for 2022, including by arranging special training programmes and by offering other kinds of technical support.

Time-tested partners – a look back

France’s history of diplomatic engagement with India begins right at the year of India’s independence in 1947. It voluntarily ceded its former colonial possessions in southern India to India in 1962 by a treaty.

In 1998, when India declared itself a nuclear state following a planned and overseen atomic bomb explosion in the desert of northwestern state of Rajasthan, France was among the very few countries that restrained from condemning it and in the same year, the relationship with India was upgraded to a ‘strategic partnership’, in a recognition of India’s rationale for a credible nuclear deterrent to discourage an attack from its hostile neighbours to the east and west.

The following years saw cooperation between both countries in the fields of space, defence and civil nuclear trade. In 2008, France and India signed an agreement for civil nuclear cooperation.

In 2009, the Indian armed forces even participated in the French national day parade in Paris, the first time an Indian military contingent registered their presence in the national day parade of another country.

In 2018, during Macron’s visit to India, both countries agreed to improve the interoperability of each other’s military bases and to expand the operational reach of each other’s armed forces by signing the Agreement for the Provision of Reciprocal Logistics Support.

Being a permanent member at the UN Security Council holding the veto-power, France has supported India’s stand at the world body on multiple occasions such as turning the tables on a China-sponsored closed-door meeting on Jammu and Kashmir in India’s favour in 2019. Paris has also backed a UN resolution on designating Pakistan-based jihadi leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

Today, France’s support for India and vice-versa goes beyond the security domain to economic, educational and cultural levels. Paris supports New Delhi’s bid for membership at the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group, and also for permanent membership at the UN Security Council. This special partnership of two key civilizational states and democracies is expected only to get strengthened further in the years to come.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.