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Despite the obvious differences in language and culture, France and India share a long history of cordial relations which go way beyond just political and strategic camaraderie. The main reason for this, according to Alexandre Ziegler, the ambassador of France to India, are shared values and trust. Which is perhaps why after holding senior diplomatic positions in Hong Kong, Berlin and Beijing, and having served as Chief of Staff to the French Foreign Minister in Paris, he actually asked to be posted in India.
In an interview with Ramananda Sengupta, he discusses how he plans to take the relationship to the next level.
In the two years that you have been posted here, what has surprised you?
I came here in June 2016. I had visited India a few times over the past 12-15 years, so I knew the country a little bit. I wanted to be posted to India, so I asked for this posting. As I expected, it was a large country, a large democracy, with a commonality of values, a country that was transforming very quickly, with a lot of opportunities for our relationship, and yet a country with which we were not yet at the level we should have been. You are always surprised when you come to a new country. But there are two things which struck me: First, the facility with which we connect with the people here. When we think about India in France, it is seen as a foreign country, far away. But when you land here, you feel at home from the very beginning. I’ve served in many countries as a diplomat, but this was the first time it happened to me, this feeling that there is some connection with the people was just obvious. You could make friends very easily. And this was much, much stronger than what I had expected. Second, the high level of innovation. When you look at our economic footprint in this country, what is really striking is the amount of energy and investments that our companies have brought here in terms of innovation and R&D. Twenty-five major French companies have set up large R&D centres here in India. This is really unique. The freedom of thinking, the quality of innovation that is here, particularly among the young generation is extremely striking. While I had probably anticipated this, it was definitely overwhelming once I settled here.
What about your family?
My wife and five kids had never been to India before, and they all wanted to come and experience it. So it was a collective decision to move here.
You mentioned this bond which you sensed on arrival, despite the differences in language and culture. How do you account for it?
I would say two words: values and trust. Values, like democracy, a multicultural nation, a country that is attached to its traditions, to its history, culture and literature, food, cinema. Exactly like France. There is this French phrase "l'exception culturelle française" or cultural exception, which means that of course we’re part of the globalised world, but we are very much attached to our identity, our culture, and this is something we find in India as well. So these are among the many commonalities we share, of opening our societies to the world while keeping our traditions and history alive. Trust has more to do with the diplomatic and strategic aspects of our relations. We’ve been with India for the past 70 years. France was the first country with which India engaged in a strategic partnership, and it was not by chance. Because we are what Prime Minister Modi described as an all-weather partner. A partner in good times is easy, but to stand by in difficult times, is less easy. See 1998 (India’s nuclear tests) see 1999 (Kargil war), see our solidarity with India during terrorist attacks. In the long history of India, I can’t find any single moment during which we have not been supportive. And in the unpredictable world in which we are, this idea that we are trusted partners, we are all-weather partners, that we’ve always been supportive is at the very core of our relations.
So where are the gaps in the relationship?
When you think about France and India, you would usually refer to the strategic partnership. That’s very important and essential in the world we live in today. But I think we can do more in two other kinds of partnerships. The first one is the partnership of the future, which is how to invent with India, in India, solutions that can be used all over the world. Like what we are doing in terms of smart cities, clean energy, etc. The other is what I call the partnership of the people (people-to-people ties). We have a strong political connection, we have a strong strategic partnership, we have a lot of history, in terms of culture, cinema… but look at the figures. We have 40,000 Chinese students in our universities, but only 5000 Indian students – which is absurd. If you want to build a partnership for the next 50 years, you need to be much more connected to the young generation, and that really is something we are focusing on. When President Macron visited India, he spent a lot of his time interacting with students and academics, and this is absolutely critical to meet a target of 10,000 students in the next two years, if possible 20,000 in the next five to seven years. My dream would also be to see as many French students in Indian universities.
You have travelled extensively across India, including a recent trip to Kashmir.
I’ve been travelling a lot. In the two years I’ve been in India, I’ve visited 20 states on 60 missions across the country. Larges cities and also small places…I feel that you can’t understand or work properly in this country if you don’t spend time criss-crossing the nation. Meeting people outside the embassy – that is my strategy… to travel to better understand this country. I was in Kashmir, and that was the first time a French ambassador had gone in at least 15 or 20 years. I wanted to see for myself what the real situation is and how we can cooperate with that region.
So what was your takeaway from the Kashmir visit?
What struck me is the willingness and the energy of everybody to try and find a solution to the situation. It was during the Ramadan ceasefire, and I met a lot of people: officials, security forces, I visited a university in Kashmir, met our small French community in Srinagar, and everywhere there was this feeling that we want this situation to improve, we see the opportunities in the region, and we want to find a solution.
There’s a French community in Kashmir?
Yes, we do have a very small French community there. One of my moving experiences in Srinagar was the breakfast I had with a couple: an Indian from Kashmir and a Frenchwoman, who had opened a bakery in Srinagar. He was a baker in Paris and had trained there, and they decided to move back to Srinagar, and they now have two little kids, but this bakery, I remember getting in at 8 in the morning and smelling the aroma of croissants and baguettes, and it was just like pushing open the door of any bakery in Paris, in the middle of Srinagar.
Energy is another area of cooperation …there was the International Solar Alliance launched by Modi and Macron…but what is the status of the Jaitapur nuclear plant?
I was part of the Paris Agreement negotiations on climate change. India not only was a part of that agreement, India helped to shape it, there was a very, very strong commitment by this government to go for non-carbon energy. In a country like India, given the size of the population, the economy, the need for energy, over the next few years, it is obvious that the energy basket has to have a mix of renewables and nuclear. French companies are providing almost 10 per cent of the solar energy in India, but also nuclear power. And we want to be present on these two fronts. We have a long cooperation in civilian nuclear energy, which is part of our strategic partnership, and we are committed to the Jaitapur project, which involves six latest generation reactors called EPR, which will become the largest nuclear power plant in the world. Negotiations are on for this very ambitious project, and we set a milestone during President Macron’s visit by reaching an agreement on the industrial project, and now are actively engaged in the financing and other terms.
Another common threat we face is terrorism…
Counter-terrorism is part of our strategic partnership, and is now becoming a large part of the strategic dialogues. Our two countries have faced attacks by terrorism, and I think it is now a threat to the world, especially democracies like France and India. Because what the terrorists are targeting are precisely these values. So we are specific targets, and we have to work together to tackle this threat. We’ve been sharing intelligence for a long time, and our judicial systems work together as well, and over the past one or two years, our focus is on cyber propaganda…how do we tackle this kind of propaganda that comes directly into your computer and to your home? We are cooperating more and more on this. Second, we are cooperating on the financial aspect of terrorism. We organised an international conference on this in Paris, where India was a major actor. Then there’s the FATF, G20 is also there. And third, we are now engaging on how to go about de-radicalisation. That’s also something we want to develop. So, cyber propaganda, financing jihad and de-radicalisation are the three new topics that are emerging out of this very strong cooperation against terrorism.
While France and India are promoting multilateralism without losing strategic independence, we have two large powers, the US and China, which are becoming increasingly unilateral and pulling out of or defying global institutions…
What is obvious is that if you look back past 70 years, is that multilateralism, although not perfect, has brought to unprecedented peace and economic prosperity. This holds true for not just for the developed world, but also for emerging economies, which have benefited a lot from multilateral social economic systems. But this is also true for the new challenges that are emerging: environment, oceans, migration, terrorism, and so on. These have to be addressed through a new international order or new instruments. These could be global or local instruments, or a combination. President Macron has decided to hold on November 11 this year the first edition of the Paris Peace Forum. It’s precisely about this. How do you adapt global governance, invent new systems or solutions that could be either global or very, very local, so that you can keep this collective system, or the multilateral system, alive, and yet address new challenges, like the shifting powers over the past 70 years. We want India’s voice to be heard here. President Macron has invited Prime Minister Modi to attend the celebrations of the end of the First World War, and it is highly symbolic that we will be, the same day, commemorating one of the worst war in history and start thinking on how to build peace for the for the coming generations out of this new collective mechanisms.
What about our defence relationship…particularly the offsets of the Rafale deal?
What has been clear from our defence cooperation over the past few years is that we are a partner for strategic independence. Which means we don’t just sell systems, but we sell systems that you can use freely, and we transfer a lot of technology. The future of our cooperation will be mostly based on this idea. You can call it Make in India, you can call it defence offsets and transfer, but basically that’s the core philosophy of our long-lasting cooperation: strategic autonomy, which means transferring capacities. If you look at the Scorpene, for instance, it was launched long before this idea of Make in India. It was actually the most ambitious Make in India programme ever undertaken. Six submarines, entirely built in Indian shipyards. An obvious success, not only in terms of providing systems, but strategic autonomy through the transfer of technology. Then there are many other programmes, like Rafale, then developing for India a fighter jet engine, the Kaveri, satellites, etc. We are not merely ready for that, we are already doing it. Our defence companies Thales, Safran, MBDA, have been active in India for long, Dassault has set up a plant in Nagpur that has started producing parts for the Falcon family and will soon make parts for the Rafale. Yes, we are very much committed to India, but the idea is not just to bring assembly lines here, which any other partner can do. The idea is to bring together technology that leads to more strategic autonomy.
France is sending warships to the South China Sea. What does Paris hope to achieve with this?
As you’ve already seen, when President Macron came to India in March, we agreed to cooperate in the Indian Ocean. We signed a series of agreements, like the logistics agreement that allows our respective navies access to each other’s bases. Why is this? First of all, because we are also a country of the Indian Ocean. We have more than a million citizens in Reunion and other islands. We have economic interests, we have forces present, we have a special economic zone which is 10 per cent of the total surface area of the Indian Ocean, and we are confronted with same challenges: piracy, illegal trafficking, natural disasters… It is also absolutely crucial for our nations to preserve freedom of navigation. And we decided to do everything possible to preserve this freedom. And I am quite sure that in the years to come it will be an increasing area of cooperation between our two nations, in the form of joint exercises, development of common capacities through joint action, and a common security architecture for the region.
Earlier this year, the French Foreign Secretary spoke of four priorities: security, independence, influence and solidarity. Would you like to explain what solidarity means?
I can give a few examples: it is a concept that is part of our collective heritage in
France: Liberté, égalité, fraternite. The last one is solidarity. Let’s take a few examples. Migration. Of course, you can close your borders to stop anybody from entering your country or your continent. But the only way to control it in the long term is through co-developing and helping the countries from where the migration occurs, especially sometimes the more educated middle class who have enough money to pay to the smugglers, to help these developing countries in making their people stay on. It will take time, of course. Then there’s climate change, which also requires a lot of solidarity from the countries that are today faced with the consequences of climate change, from the strongest to the weakest. The International Solar Alliance is another example of solidarity. It will help small countries in Africa and the Pacific, which could not afford it to have the same access to solar energy. Solidarity is about providing very concrete solutions to very concrete challenges.
Finally, who will win the world cup?
France, of course!