A mere buyer-seller relationship?
According to WorldPublicOpinion, a publication of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, 42% of Indians view France’s influence in international affairs favourably: eleven percent don’t. On the other hand, only 27% of respondents from France were positive about India’s influence. The majority, over 44% of them, was not. In terms of how positively they perceive India, Americans, British, Russians, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Iranians, Indonesians, Australians, even the Chinese scored better than the French. This poll was conducted even before London-based Mittal Steel’s hostile bid to acquire Arcelor, its European competitor. After some typically French talk about ‘economic patriotism’ and an Indian threat of retaliation public opinion in both countries is at a low ebb. Add that row over the Clemenceau and its asbestos and it gets worse.
France did not criticise India’s 1998 nuclear tests, supported its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, secured an important deal to supply the Indian navy with submarines and, during President Chirac’s visit next week, is expected to sign another on civilian nuclear reactors. Surely, all this should make the two countries some kind of strategic partners. Not quite. France could hardly criticise India’s nuclear tests as it had just conducted one of its own in the South Pacific, amid international uproar. Similarly, its decision to support India’s UNSC bid was at least partially driven by a desire to avoid the ‘why so many seats for the EU’ debate. As for arms deals, France has not been too picky about its customers. It is helping Pakistan build submarines too. Despite Europe’s arms embargo on China, French hardware has helped China modernise several of its weapons platforms. There’s nothing special about the Indo-French bilateral relationship.
It has been suggested that the French geopolitical perspective does not see India as a means (or indeed a need) to counterbalance China. This is understandable given the EU countries do not have any security commitments in Asia. The cartoon-related riots should give them something to think about. However it is matters relating to the global economy that the EU as a whole has to reconcile itself to India’s current and future role. Already, India as a leading voice of the G-20 has squared off with the EU at the WTO. The EU finds itself on the defensive over its agricultural subsidies and restraints over free trade in services. Moreover, as American, British and Asian firms leverage on India’s knowledge industries and improve their competitiveness, European firms will either have to follow suit or risk losing out to their rivals.
The least President Chirac needs to attempt to do during his trip to New Delhi is to inject some warmth into the bilateral relationship. But if the WorldPublicOpinion poll is anything to go by, the path to improved relations begins in France. Both India and France will have to work on that one.