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The Third Axis

By Claude Arpi
January 24, 2003 17:42 IST
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Until the beginning of January, French President Jacques Chirac tried hard to show French foreign policy was 'different,' as had been his mentor's Charles de Gaulle. His government declared several times it was taking decisions only on merit, and not blindly following the United States.

On December 31, in his traditional address to the French people, Chirac again emphasised on this 'difference.' During the customary presidential greetings to the nation, it is unusual for the French leader to speak about foreign policy, but this year in view of the grave situation developing in the Middle East, Chirac told his countrymen France was in favour of a two-phased approach to the Iraqi problem. He promised he would insist on another vote of the Security Council before any armed intervention. This announcement carried special importance at a time when France was to take over presidency of the Council for January. 

The president and his advisors have repeated over and again 'France has its own freedom of appreciation and intends to keep it till the end.' This policy would continue, it was clarified, till a decision was taken, 'if it has to be taken.'

However, Chirac's tone changed on January 7 when he sent his New Year greetings to the French army. He told them 'new operations theatres' may be opened in 2003; the army should be 'ready for any eventualities'. This readiness, he added was 'the heart of a soldier's job'.

On the same day, he addressed the diplomatic corps and took a more moderate approach: 'the eventual decision to use force will have to be taken by the UN Security Council on the basis of the report of the UN inspectors.'

Le Monde journal commented: 'Martial in the forenoon, diplomat in the afternoon.'

Indeed, despite American pressure, Chirac cannot ignore that 77 per cent of the French are against the war and, further, it would jeopardize France's partnership with Germany if France decided to tow Washington's line.

This French tango came a few days before Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani's visit to Paris. An external affairs ministry spokesperson explained Advani would have discussions that 'are part of the steady flow of high-level exchanges between India and France to broaden and strengthen our bilateral cooperation'.

Besides meeting French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and holding talks with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Advani signed an Indo-French extradition treaty. This visit will pave the way for Raffarin's visit to India in February.

The main interest of these high-level visits is perhaps not in exchanging views on each other's respective positions on the American adventure in Baghdad, but the roles the two countries want to play in the world in future. Since the end of the Cold War, both nations have, in their own ways, been advocating a multi-polar world and tried to put across in their sphere of influence, the possibility of having views different from Washington's.

The 1960s saw de Gaulle promoting his fiercely independent foreign policy in Europe while in Asia, India participated in the Non-Alignment Movement. At a time when the world was bipolar, both nations, in their own manner, strove to keep their independent vision of a multi-polar world.

Though France was always clearly a part of the Western world and India's non-alignment made her closer to the Soviet Union, at least for supply of arms and equipment, both nations remained against the concept of 'vassality' and strong believers in the importance of diversity in world relations.

Today, the stars seem in a favourable position to create a new powerful axis between France and India.

France was one of the very few Western countries that did not criticize India after the Pokhran nuclear tests in May 1998. Paris understood Delhi's legitimate need to build a deterrent nuclear policy.

A few months later, when Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited France, he and his French counterpart gave a concrete shape to the concept of a strategic dialogue between France and India. For the French side, there was 'no doubt that India is a major player on the international scene and has an acute sense of its international responsibilities.'

Since then, this dialogue has been held regularly. The French said, 'The strategic dialogue has been conducted in a great climate of confidence and has allowed the two countries to address all the global issues on a regular basis in a fast changing security environment.'

In December 2002, while National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra was returning from Washington, he decided to stop over in the French capital to meet Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, diplomatic advisor to President Chirac.

I remember a new first secretary at the French embassy in Delhi some 20 years ago. I was struggling to learn an Indian language and was flabbergasted to hear this young man, freshly graduated from the famous ENA (National School of Administration), speak good Hindi. He had opted for a language not very popular with his colleagues during those days. His name was Gourdault-Montagne.

The fact Chirac's advisor knows India well and has always appreciated it certainly gives an extra possibility for relations between the two countries to take a major leap forward. Another indicator is that Gourdault-Montagne delayed a trip to Copenhagen where he was scheduled to address an important European Community meeting, to have lunch with Mishra.

This gesture was appreciated by the Indian side.

It was reported Chirac's advisor congratulated India on the election in Kashmir; he apparently told Mishra Paris had noted the fact that all de-escalation measures had come from India despite continued Pakistan-sponsored terrorist activity in Kashmir. This was considered a new turn in France's Kashmir policy.

The two men met again in early January for the 9th Indo-French Strategic Dialogue meeting. Gourdault-Montagne briefed his counterpart on the latest French perceptions on the Iraq front.

Last month Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal went to Paris for the regular foreign secretary-level consultations. He met his French counterpart Hubert Colin de Verdiere and called on French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The interesting aspect is Sibal, till recently Indian ambassador to France, speaks fluent French and is a great lover of French culture. De Villepin is not foreign to India, having been posted twice in this country.

What does this series of ‘coincidences' mean?

With the impeding conflict in Iraq, it perhaps indicates the time has come for nations like France and India to create a new strategic axis that will oppose terrorism and fundamentalism, but will not accept the diktat of one nation as the only truth. And this especially, when that one nation seems to have forgotten the ideals for which it was created.

In spirit, no other nation is as close to the ideal of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the sacred mantra of the French Revolution, as India. Tomorrow, our planet will survive only if, during the course of the 21st century, mankind respects and practices these ideals. A uni-polar world will never be able to preserve this concept.

Immediately after India's Independence, France could have become a perfect partner. Unfortunately, the problems of the French establishment in India and the conflicting policy of the two ministries dealing with the issue in Paris, as well as the Partition of the subcontinent and its bloody consequences, did not allow France and India to spend the necessary energy to start relations on a strong footing.

Later, the question of Indochina took so much of the French government's attention that nothing could be done to solve the Pondicherian bone of contention until the end of the Geneva Conference on Indochina in July 1954. At that time, then French prime minister Pierre Mendes-France boldly took the opportunity of an agreement on Indochina to make his government accept the de facto cession of the French territories.

One could have thought the relations between the two countries would have begun afresh, but unfortunately France got entangled with another of her colonies. It was not till the Evian Accord on Algeria was signed in 1962 that the de lego transfer of Pondicherry and the other establishments could be finally carried out.

By this time, it was too late and China-mania had begun. De Gaulle and his minister Alain Peyrefitte were dreaming of being the first nation to diplomatically engage Communist China. The China syndrome lasted more than 30 years. France is still not fully out of it. Some may still believe in the two billion laces syndrome, which is based on the fact that one billion Chinese wear two billions shoes with one lace each, all being eventual buyers for foreign manufacturers.

I regularly receive a weekly magazine Revue Asie Actualités (Asia News Review) published by the French foreign ministry's directorate of foreign economic relations. It surprises me each time that all the articles are related to China, Korea, Japan or Singapore. Every week, I wonder if India is still in Asia or on another continent.

Hopefully, this will change soon. The Indian deputy prime minister's visit will be a step forward, not only to exchange views and information on terrorism, but also to find a third way out of the Iraq crisis, and finally create a new axis.

Last year, at a conference on relations between India and France, organized by Nantes University, Kanwal Sibal summed up the issue: 'France and India keep excellent relations in the political fields and the two nations' views are convergent in many domains, for example in our belief in multi-polarity. We do not have conflict of interests.'

Not only do France and India have no conflict of interests, but they should discover strong convergent interests, the first amongst others being the creation of a new axis of nations aspiring for a pluri-polar world.

'India and France' may not rhyme, but they could be words that go together well.

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Claude Arpi