Ambassador Emmanuel Lenain’s interview to FORCE magazine

We are a neighbour of India, with the same stakes in the region’s future, the same assessment of the challenges, and the same approach to tackle them.

New Delhi, 8 July 2022

What have been the recent milestones in France-India relationship and what role will they play in taking the bilateral ties forward?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Paris on 4 May 2022 was definitely an important moment. Coming just a few days after President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election, it was an exceptional gesture of trust and friendship.

In fact, Prime Minister Modi was the first foreign leader to meet President Macron after the election. It was a highly symbolic meeting—a powerful signal of the two leaders’ shared ambition for the Indo-French strategic partnership. India will feature even higher in the foreign policy priorities of President Macron in his second term. I was there and I can testify to both the personal chemistry between the leaders and the extremely confident and productive nature of their discussions.

In particular, they decided to broaden the scope of our strategic partnership to emerging areas that will define the future of our nations’ independence. The new frontiers of strategic autonomy: new technologies such as artificial intelligence and supercomputing, cybersecurity, energy independence and space security. If our two countries can work together in sensitive areas, it is because of the exceptional trust that we have built together over decades. We have always stood by each other, in good times and bad. In today’s world, this level of strategic trust is a scarce coin. It’s our best asset to strengthen our respective strategic autonomy, promote a rules-based multipolar order, and find collective solutions to global challenges.

What has been the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the relationship, given that India and France have taken different positions on the war?

Our views are actually quite convergent. In May, President Macron and Prime Minister Modi jointly called for an immediate end of hostilities, reiterated the need to respect fundamental principles of international law such as territorial integrity and agreed to work together on mitigating the drastic consequences of the Russian invasion for the rest of the world, particularly food security. Both our countries have condemned the atrocities committed against civilians, for instance in Bucha, and called for an independent investigation.

I believe that if France and India speak with the same voice as this, it can have a real impact. First, because India’s voice matters greatly on the international scene. Second, because President Macron and Prime Minister Modi are amongst the few leaders who speak to both President Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin and can thus help to find a diplomatic solution. Our focus is on what we can achieve together in a tangible way, not on lecturing each other. That’s not how it works between two strategic partners such as France and India.

In this respect, I also believe that we are on the same page regarding the long-term lessons of this conflict. No country that values its independence likes to have its foreign policy options constrained by legacy dependencies. Whether it be energy, defence, agricultural products. More than ever, this conflict has confirmed the need for strategic autonomy. This goal was already the focus of the Indo-French partnership: we are now speeding up these efforts in all areas to make both our nations more independent.

Being an Indian Ocean power, France has stakes in the region that is increasingly coming under the Chinese influence because of the BRI. Given France’s relationship with both China and India, as well as your diplomatic experience in China, do you envisage a cooperative mechanism in the IOR?

Indeed, France is a resident power of the Indo-Pacific. We have several territories and close to two million citizens in the region, as well as most of our Exclusive Economic Zone (the 2nd largest in the world) and a permanent military presence of several thousand troops. We are a neighbour of India, with the same stakes in the region’s future, the same assessment of the challenges, and the same approach to tackle them.

Our shared vision is that of a rules-based Indo-Pacific made up of independent nations that work on collective solutions to common challenges. To uphold this vision, we rely first of all on our decades-long maritime cooperation: we hold an annual dialogue on maritime safety, we monitor the situation at sea together on a daily basis, thanks in particular to the French liaison officer posted in IFC-IOR, our navies train together in high-complexity drills and act together if needed. For instance, last month, a P-8I surveillance aircraft of the Indian Navy operated from the French island of Reunion to carry out joint patrolling in the western Indian Ocean with French navy ships. This is a tangible example of how we can jointly act as net security providers.

But we also know that the region’s challenges go beyond maritime security. They are multifaceted. We need to be able to offer a comprehensive, sustainable, alternative model to the countries of the region. From connectivity, to environment, healthcare and sustainable financing, the focus of Indo-French cooperation is now increasingly on developing joint projects in third countries. This is also the thrust behind the European Union’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, which France fully supports. It’s a significant development because it brings in the additional resources of the EU institutions and 27 member states to build and fund concrete actions.

How does France view the emergence of QUAD aimed at containing China? Some refer to it as NATO 2 and call it a potential destabiliser in the region. With the experience of AUKUS, what is France’s perspective on the developments in South and Southeast Asia? How does one ensure that there is less provocation and more cooperation?

France’s fundamental disagreement with AUKUS is that it embodies a confrontational logic of military bloc with an exclusive focus on security. Many countries of the region, particularly from ASEAN, voiced the concern that it can fuel tensions. Moreover, it does not address any of their immediate needs in terms of development, infrastructure, food security…

Look at the vulnerabilities exposed in the neighbourhood. We need a comprehensive agenda of solutions. That is the focus of our cooperation with India as well as the EU strategy. This was indeed the goal of the Ministerial Forum for the Indo-Pacific hosted in Paris in February. The Quad’s agenda is more in line with this approach—it is non-confrontational and multidimensional.

India and France have had good defence industrial cooperation, from fighter aircraft to submarines. How can this be turned into a partnership, where we see more R&D and joint ventures instead of a buyer-seller relationship?

In fact, our defence partnership goes back to India’s Independence. In the 1950s, one of the first fighter jets with which the Indian Air Force was equipped was the French-made Ouragan—called Toofani in India. Since then, French defence companies have not only provided best-in-class equipment to India but also made the choice to invest and produce here. ‘Make in India’ has been a reality for French defence companies for decades.

Nowadays, there are Indo-French joint ventures producing parts of Rafale fighter in Nagpur, missile components in Coimbatore, helicopter engine elements in Bangalore. The Scorpene/ Kalvari submarine programme is also emblematic of a 100 per cent, successful technology transfer programme. France is and will continue to be India’s partner of choice to build an Aatmanirbhar Bharat. Across all fields, we are looking at how France can deepen its involvement in efforts for advanced defence technology, manufacturing and exports. For instance, there are discussions on French contribution to co-developing the advanced fighter jet engine and any new order of Rafale jets would also come with a strong make in India dimension. The potential for co-development is immense.

Is the Indian Navy’s P-75I submarine programme a setback?

Naval Group has always been willing to offer the best in class and adapted solutions to meet the Indian Navy’s needs, in line with Aatmanirbhar Bharat. The Scorpene/ Kalvari submarine programme is proof of that. The current P-75I RFP requires that the AIP fuel cell be sea proven, which is not the case yet for Naval Group since the French Navy does not use such propulsion system, although Naval Group has developed one. Therefore, this technical condition has prevented the two selected Indian companies from forwarding the request to Naval Group. That does not change the French group’s commitment to supporting the Indian Navy through ‘Make in India’ collaborations. It is up to India to define the requirements for its armed forces. Whenever France and its companies can meet these requirements, we will be ready to provide the best of our technology. We will see how the P-75I programme develops.

How do you view the potential of growth in the energy and strategic sectors between the two nations?

Green energy is a fast-growing area of Indo-French cooperation. French companies are investing massively in clean energy in India, from solar power to green hydrogen. Moreover, talks on the Jaitapur nuclear power plant have made significant progress. With 10GW installed capacity, it will be the world’s largest nuclear power plant, providing low-carbon, cheap electricity to the equivalent of seven crore households and avoiding the emission of 80 million tons of CO2 per year. We are fully committed to helping India boost its energy independence and meet the ambitious energy transition goals Prime Minister Modi has set at COP 26. Together, we can lead by example, and that is what we have been doing since 2015 through the International Solar Alliance, which is co-chaired by France and India.

I have mentioned the other strategic areas where we are increasingly working together, in addition to the well-established defence and armament cooperation. I would like to highlight in particular the decision of Prime Minister Modi and President Macron to set up a strategic dialogue on space security issues. This is important because space is becoming increasingly contested. There is also a real need for like-minded countries to join forces in multilateral forums to promote international norms that keep space free and secure. This dialogue will build on the longstanding Indo-French civilian space partnership. We have been building civilian satellites together for over 60 years, so it’s natural to also work together to protect them!

France has been very vocal on human rights issues, across the world, including in China. How does it view India’s poor ranking on matters of human rights, religious and press freedom? Does it have any mechanism of engagement with the government of India on these issues?

All democracies are works in progress. We do not give lessons to each other, but we try to improve together. Our strategic partnership with India is grounded on common democratic values and an unshakable mutual trust that enables us to discuss everything in full confidence. We also work to bring our civil societies closer together: I believe this is a crucial investment in the future of our relations and will help to strengthen the democratic vitality of both our nations.

The world seems to be moving towards bipolarity. Do you agree with this? Do you think it will create greater stability or instability?

We have certainly entered a world of greater instability. International tensions are rising, great power rivalry is back, and autocratic countries do not refrain anymore from using naked violence to achieve their goals. That is what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine, flouting the universal principles that are the cornerstone of a rules-based world order. His war of aggression has disastrous consequences not only for the Ukrainian people, but also for people all over the world by aggravating food and energy insecurity.

In the Indo-Pacific, too, the rule of law has suffered from deliberate blows in recent years. In this context, France aims to act as a balancing power: we stand by our allies while retaining our strategic autonomy and working to find diplomatic, multilateral answers to the world’s challenges. France stands for a multipolar world order and that is a view that we very much share with India. That is why France has always supported a reform of the United Nations Security Council that gives India a permanent seat. We believe India deserves it and that multilateralism would gain a lot with India permanently at the Council’s table.

One would have imagined that post-Covid 19 pandemic, the world would seek greater cooperative mechanisms to ensure collective security and development. That does not seem to be happening. What are your thoughts on this?

It is true that the pandemic has profoundly challenged our multilateral mechanism, especially given the assertive behaviour of some countries during this period. On the other hand, we have also witnessed exceptional displays of solidarity and cooperation. When France went through a difficult first wave of Covid-19, India authorised the export of critical medical drugs that saved lives in French hospitals.

In return, when India faced the second wave, France stood by its side and provided 180 tons of oxygen as well as 30 oxygen generator plants to Indian hospitals, which made each of these hospitals oxygen-aatmanirbhar. More recently, the WTO negotiations reached a deal on patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccine. The lesson is that we need more multilateralism, not less, but that it must be reformed to be more effective. This is a task that requires daily, untiring efforts by countries that have both the means and the willingness to step up for collective solutions—India is certainly in this category. That’s why we are very much looking forward to India’s presidency of the G20. France will provide its full support.

Last modified on 08/07/2022

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