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 oppose sanctions (after nuclear tests) and cast the odd veto (when Kashmir would come up). India bought the odd bit of weaponry in return, but Paris played this role not for gain but to promote a multipolar world, to dilute the overweening power of any single country in the world. Giving India a helping hand helped France’s general desire to slay hegemons.

The problem is that today, France is less interested in promoting that role. And 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 it’s hard to keep 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 just 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 defense 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 New Delhi keeps finding countries who want to do it a special turn. When George W. Bush decided to carve out an exception for India in the nuclear nonproliferation regime, France’s special role for India was much reduced.

But France is still a dependable vote for India as it tries to enter various international fora, especially those related to the nonproliferation regime. And with India’s economy opening up there are now more economic opportunities for both countries than ever before. L’Oreal is very successful in India, and Tata Consultancy Services are doing well in France.

But the Indo-French economic relationship is punching well below its weight. India trades more with Belgium than France. Indian investment in France is about one billion dollars. There are barely 3,000 Indian students in France. And what was most 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); there is a sense in the Indian private corporate sector that France doesn’t have too much to offer. There are issues with technology, quality and so on. Plus, 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.

The same could be said for French foreign policy: old formulae are not working in the new world order. Paris needs a new India formula, but it must stop hunting for billion dollar contracts to find one.

Copyright © 2013 the Hindustan Times

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