France-India: an increasingly strategic partnership

France-India: an increasingly strategic partnership

December 3, 2023


The author, Paco Milhiet, is Visiting Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (NTU-Singapore) and Associate Researcher at the Catholic Institute of Paris (ICP)


“India will have a decisive role in our future; it is also a strategic partner and a friendly country,” declared Emmanuel Macron a few minutes after awarding the grand cross of the Legion of Honor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 14, 2023, invited to attend the traditional parade on the Champs- Elysees.

It is true that since the signing of a strategic partnership in 1998, the Franco-Indian bilateral relationship has experienced unprecedented growth in several areas: cultural, economic, diplomatic, but above all strategic. Nuclear energy, aerospace, research and development, arms exports and joint military exercises are all key sectors that promote the development of this relationship.

Since 2018, this strategic partnership has included a strong Indo-Pacific dimension. Through the voice of their respective heads of state, Emmanuel Macron and Narendra Modi, the two countries each formalized their own Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, a few months apart.


A long shared history

France and India maintain an ancient bilateral relationship, dating back to the XNUMXthe century. At the time, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of Louis XIV, pursued the ambition of building a colonial empire in South Asia. Five “Indian counters” remained under French sovereignty until 1954: Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanaon, Mahé and Chandernagore.

in XXe century, the two countries have maintained good relations symbolized by the respect expressed between their respective heads of state: Jawaharlal Nehru and Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Indira Gandhi (perfectly French-speaking), and now Emmanuel Macron and Narendra Modi (which also applies to the French president regular reviews from human rights NGOs, due to the policy pursued in this area by the Indian Prime Minister).

Furthermore, France was one of the only countries not to condemn Indian nuclear tests in 1998 and supports India in its goal of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Identifiable as “great middle powers” ​​according to a formula used in 2009 by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and which still seems relevant today – India is still not a member of the UN Security Council, the operational capabilities of its army are limited and the growth of its economy barely compensates for a significant annual population –, French and Indian diplomacies have regularly adopted convergent foreign policies, notably during the war in Iraq in 2003, marked by a desire for strategic autonomy in the practice of their respective foreign policies and a rejection of bloc policies.

If France is today well anchored in the Western camp as a member of NATO, and India a major player in the "global south" through its participation in BRICS, the two countries still claim an independent foreign policy.

This common vision of international relations has enabled India and France to develop a deep defense partnership.


Defense Partnership

Following its independence in 1947, India did not want to depend exclusively on the former British colonizer. It then turned to France to purchase military equipment. In 1953, 120 Ouragan-type fighter planes were purchased from the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault. The embargo declared in 1965 on arms sales to India following the Indo-Pakistani wars was lifted on the French side in 1966. Since then, French arms sales in India have been booming.

Over the period 2002-2023, France is the second largest supplier of Indian arms after Russia, while India is the main French customer. Several contracts are emblematic: six “Indianized” Scorpène class submarines made by the Bombay shipyard are now in service and 36 Rafale fighter planes were delivered between 2020 and 2022.

In 2023, after July 14, India announced the acquisition of three submarines and 26 additional Rafale aircraft.

Exporting arms is not a neutral act, devoid of any political interest, because it leads to the dissemination of training standards, operational culture, technological familiarization and doctrinal application. The sale of arms locks in a defense relationship on which geopolitical and economic interests are superimposed.

Added to this civil-military cooperation is the proliferation of bilateral and multilateral military exercises as well as active participation in regional forums (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Indian Ocean Rim Association).


The Indo-Pacific turning point

In 2021, AUKUS, a tripartite agreement between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom resulted in thecancellation of a Franco-Australian submarine contract. Since then, the French Indo-Pacific strategy has favored the development of its relations with the countries of the Indian Ocean. This new strategic scheme frees up room for maneuver for French diplomacy in order to strengthen its links with other countries in the region, primarily India, now the cornerstone of its foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

Proof if there was one, on July 14, 2023, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was the guest of honor at the military parade on the Champs-Élysées. Indian troops paraded while Indian Rafales flew over the Parisian avenue.

A few moments later, Indian and French diplomacy published a joint press release to celebrate 25 years of strategic partnership. Titled “Horizon 2047: 25e anniversary of the strategic partnership between India and France, towards the centenary of Franco-Indian relations", a "road map" listed 12 points as pillars of collaboration in the Indo-Pacific regional whole: seabed , space, maritime cooperation, solar alliance, Franco-Indian campus, Oceanian Pacific.


Reunion Island, laboratory of Franco-Indian relations

A French territory in the Indian Ocean, the island of Reunion, illustrates this new Indo-Pacific component of the Franco-Indian relationship.

France, a power bordering the Indo-Pacific through the exercise of its sovereignty in its overseas communities, intends to use the island of Reunion as a relay for good Franco-Indian understanding. A large part of Reunion's population is of Indian origin, and an Indian consulate on Reunion Island has been open since 1983. Since 2018, the two countries have signed a logistics cooperation agreement providing access to the La Reunion base. Meeting at Indian Naval Forces.

Joint patrols involving Indian P8I aircraft are carried out regularly. Thanks to its range of 2200 km, this device can cover and monitor the entire eastern coast of Africa from Reunion Island, including the strategic Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz, which constitutes a plus- considerable strategic value for the Indian armed forces. Reunion Island is therefore gradually becoming a strategic platform for Franco-Indian military collaboration in the area.

A collaboration dictated by national interests

The French and Indian strategies above all serve the national imperatives specific to each of the two countries. For France, it is appropriate to appear as a legitimate regional power and to diversify its foreign partners. For India, tumultuous relations with powerful neighbor China and rival Pakistan remain the defining geopolitical factor.

Each strategy therefore has its own specificities and can sometimes restrict the prospects for Franco-Indian collaborations, particularly in their relationship with the two great powers, America and China, and especially with regard to Russia, which, since its invasion of Ukraine remains a major partner of India.

But these differences will not affect the bilateral relationship in the short term. The Franco-Indian relationship remains in good shape, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.


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