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France, India pop the champagne

By Saisuresh Sivaswamy in Paris
September 12, 2005 23:22 IST
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It was only late last week that French President Jacques Chirac was discharged from hospital, after a cardio vascular situation that affected his eye. That the president is not fully fit can be seen from the fact that he will not be attending this week's United Nations world summit; Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin will be present for the UN session being held in New York City.

Yet, his condition did not force Chirac to cancel his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh on Monday at his official residence, Elysee Palace. A few newsmen who were around for a photo-op said the president looked in perfect health, and moved and spoke with vigour.

Perhaps the reason for that lay in the good vibes the two leaders share, which again goes back to the strong ties between the two nations, extending over years, decades, centuries.

National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, who accompanied Dr Singh in the talks, said there was a tremendous deal of warmth between the two leaders.

"There was a great deal of congruence of views between them," he said, which perhaps prompted Chirac to say that he could not think of a world without a strong India.

The nuclear cooperation France has extended to India is but one sign of the strategic ties between the two nations.

Strategic ties-- as represented by the nuclear deal, or the defence pact, the space and technology cooperation etc-- aside, the cultural aspect to the relationship has not been left unattended. France has announced its intent to welcome more Indian students to its universities and Grandes Ecoles.

Putting money where its mouth is, it will initiate scholarships and exchange programmes for this purpose.

There will also be a grand exhibition of art from the Gupta era in 2007, to be held at the prestigious Grand Palais, currently under renovation.

Trade is another sector that stands to gain from the visit. Although France was India's third largest trade partner and bilateral trade stood at Euro 2.9 billion in 2004, both Chirac and Dr Singh agreed on Monday that the figures did not reflect the real extent of the ties between the two nations.

They have now committed to double this figure in five years.

Finance Minister P Chidambaram may not be part of his delegation on this visit, but trade and investment were high on Dr Singh's mind. On Monday, ahead of the meeting with Chirac, he hosted a group of French CEOs for breakfast at the Ritz Hotel where he 'gave an essence of the exciting opportunity that India represents', Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said.

In a democracy there may be delays in taking decision, but it is also true that the decisions taken by a democracy are enduring, the PM told them in his gentle style.

As an indication of his sincerity over expediting proposals, Dr Singh told the CEOs that a mechanism would be instituted to follow up on the projects submitted by French companies and the Prime Minister's Office will follow up on the progress and the highest priority would be given to them, said T K A Nair, principal secretary to the prime minister.

A host of other issues came up for discussion in the summit meeting between the two leaders, like regional ones, India's neighbourhood, Pakistan, Iran, all of which saw a remarkable convergence of views.

"The two leaders spent a fair amount of time on discussing their respective perception of the world, and there was an acceptance of each other's views on everything," said Narayanan.

Sure, on the big ticket item of nuclear cooperation, the president told Dr Singh he would leave no stone unturned, prompting the latter to say that India could look at accepting nuclear reactions from France when it was ready.

Perhaps Chirac summed it up best when he said: 'There is not a single item on which we had a disagreement, and there can be no better meeting between heads of state.'

Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh, who was in the meantime meeting with his French counterpart in parallel sessions, handed over to Philippe Douste-Blazy and to Chirac, an extract from The story of my experiences with truth, in which a young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi recalls the time he spent in Paris as a student.

Recalling the magnificent churches in the city, the Mahatma wrote: 'I felt then that those who expended millions on such divine cathedrals could not but have the love of God in their hearts.'

An apt memento, since Gandhi's land seems to be the toast of the season.

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy in Paris