French President Francois Hollande embarked on a fresh push Thursday to clinch a $12-billion sale of Rafale fighter jets as he held talks in India on his first visit to Asia since taking office.
The Socialist president was accompanied by a high-powered delegation of five ministers including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the chiefs of more than 60 top French companies.
The trip is aimed at building on the “strategic Indo-French partnership launched 15 years ago”, a French official said.
It marks Hollande’s first visit to Asia since taking office in May 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 will hold talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other ministers before travelling to financial hub Mumbai where he will meet some of the country’s biggest business leaders.
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 plane manufacturer Airbus.
Hollande will be lobbying hard for the $12-billion (9.6-billion euro) deal France’s Dassault Aviation hopes to clinch to sell 126 Rafale warplanes.
Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier is also part of Hollande’s delegation.
In a welcome showcase for Dassault, the jets have been deployed during France’s lightning offensive in Mali.
India last year chose the French firm for exclusive negotiations to equip its air force with new fighters and while New Delhi says the discussions are “proceeding smoothly” it has already said the contract will not be signed during Hollande’s visit as it is being fine-tuned.
Paris will have to “wait a little” to pop the bubbly, Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid advised last week.
Another major project for discussion is a contract for Areva to build a 9,900-megawatt nuclear power plant in the western coastal state of Maharashtra.
The $9.3-billion framework agreement was signed during a visit to India in 2010 by Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
But the project has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists concerned about seismic activity in the area and fears about the safety of nuclear power following the Fukushima 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”.
In an editorial on Thursday, The Times of India said that France “is arguably India’s longest standing all-weather friend, save Russia” but said it was too rooted in trade rather than a partnership of equals.
“This is indeed a good time to move the engagement from one that is still tactical and transactional to one that is more strategic and sustainable,” said the paper.