The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was in town last week to get to know the new Narendra Modi government in Delhi. The French are known to be quite different from the US and other Western countries in their dealings with India. For instance, the US or the UK tend to adopt a hectoring, prescriptive tone whenever things do not go according to the script laid down by them. This, in turn, results in sharp public statements.
That the French deal differently was in evidence once again during the foreign minister’s recent interaction with the media. India and France have a civil nuclear agreement, and the Jaitapur site for a nuclear power station in Maharashtra has been allotted to them by the previous UPA government. Most new nuclear deals are in abeyance because of the problems that foreign companies face with regard to India’s tough nuclear liability regulations.
So the inevitable question whether the French also regarded the liability law as a hindrance for putting up nuclear power stations came up in the interaction. Fabius was asked if like other foreign governments, France too considered this to be a problem. The US has repeatedly asked for changes in the law. Fabius said that the French are not here to question India’s sovereign decision. France is willing to work within the ambit of India’s rules and regulations.
Journalists have long since been used to foreign leaders taking exception to the new liability law. They protest that corporations — nowhere in the world — are subjected to the kind of heavy financial burden in case of accidents. And that these stringent rules must be changed for private companies to get insurance companies to underwrite their responsibilities. Even the Russians, who have in the past stood solidly with India on the nuclear issue, have complaints about the liability law.
The important thing to note here is that France did not raise any such demands for changing the rules. Some may argue that the French position is because Areva is a state-owned corporation while the US nuclear corporations are privately owned global conglomerates. After India’s 1998 nuclear tests, the US and its allies came down like a ton of bricks and instantly slapped sanctions on India. Then US President Bill Clinton consulted his Chinese counterpart on how to work together to contain nuclear arms proliferation in South Asia. The French, on the other hand, were much more circumspect. They did not announce sanctions. In the G8 summit in Birmingham that year, the British were leading the call for slapping additional EU sanctions on India. It was President Jacques Chirac who stepped in and asserted that individual EU countries could do what they pleased. But the EU as a group should not announce collective sanctions.
The French succeeded in thwarting the British plan to announce punitive sanctions. The NDA government was grateful to the French for their understanding. In fact the-then national security adviser, the late Brajesh Mishra, flew to Paris for consultations. And soon after India and France became strategic partners. Successive Indian governments have been grateful to France for its understanding at that critical juncture.
Today, India-France ties are on an even keel. Besides calling upon the Prime Minister, and engaging in substantial talks with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, Fabius also met defence minister Arun Jaitley. From all indications, Indo-French relations can only advance from this point on.