French President Francois Hollande arrived in India yesterday for a two-day visit during which he will push hard to clinch a US$12 billion sale of French fighter jets and other trade deals.
The trip marks Hollande’s first visit to Asia since taking office in May last year and both Indian and French officials say the mission underscores the importance France attaches to ties with the world’s second-fastest growing major economy.
“Our relations are growing fast in all sectors ... in economic, industrial and commercial spheres,” an Indian foreign ministry official said, while cautioning against expecting any big-bang announcements from Hollande’s visit.
Hollande is being given a red carpet welcome and he held talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other ministers yesterday before traveling to financial hub Mumbai where he will meet some of the country’s biggest corporate leaders.
The socialist president is accompanied by a high-powered delegation of five ministers, including French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the chiefs of over 60 top French companies.
The trip is aimed at building on the “strategic Indo-French partnership launched 15 years ago,” a French official said.
The corporate bosses reflect the wide gamut of French firms interested in export opportunities in India’s vast market — from luxury goods maker LVMH to aerospace giant EADS, which owns planemaker Airbus.
The president, who just two weeks ago was basking in a hero’s welcome in Mali, arrives in New Delhi as the French-led military campaign to drive out Islamists from the African nation’s northern territory is in its second month — a subject expected to surface at the talks.
Hollande will be lobbying hard for the US$12 billion deal France’s Dassault Aviation hopes to clinch to sell 126 Rafale warplanes.
In a welcome showcase for Dassault, the jets have been deployed during France’s lightning offensive in Mali.
Another major project for discussion is a contract for French nuclear manufacturer Areva to build a 9,900-megawatt nuclear power plant in the western coastal state of Maharashtra.
The US$9.3 billion framework agreement was signed during a visit to India in 2010 by Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
However, the project has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists concerned about seismic activity in the area and fears about the safety of nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster in Japan.
India said this week it is “fully committed” to the French-assisted Jaitapur nuclear plant, but conceded there are “issues pertaining to cost.”
After being accorded a red-carpet reception and gun salute at the residence of his counterpart, Pranab Mukherjee, Hollande spoke in English to thank his host for granting him the “great honor” of a state visit.
Following the line formerly taken by Sarkozy, Hollande endorsed India’s campaign to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
France is one of the five existing permanent members.