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France offers nuke carrot

New Delhi, Feb. 7: France, keen that Airbus win the contract for a fleet of new aircraft, today showed its willingness to share with India its expertise in nuclear energy and its application in non-military areas.

The significant gesture was made by visiting French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin soon after a meeting this evening with Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee where the two sides spoke about the need to avoid a war in Iraq and discussed ways to strengthen their co-operation in the economic field.

However, Vajpayee refrained from making any commitment on finalising the deal on the purchase of aircraft to supplement the ageing fleet of Air-India and Indian Airlines. “Negotiations are going on in the right direction and we will soon take a decision on the issue,” was the closest that he came on the proposed deal. Raffarin tried to interpret Vajpayee’s “soon” as “early”, but could not elicit a clearer commitment.

The deal, which is worth billions of dollars, has been up for grabs for several years now. But as the US-based Boeing has also shown an interest in bagging the deal to outbid Airbus, the Indian government has not been able to take a decision.

The French Prime Minister, while speaking on areas of likely co-operation to enhance economic ties, offered to help Delhi in the field of nuclear energy. Although Raffarin stressed that this was in the area of civilian use, his articulation on the issue is significant as this is the first time that any French leader has openly commented on the subject. One reason could be that France feels the offer to help in the field of nuclear energy might force India to take a decision soon in favour of the Airbus industry.

Another could be the arrangement that India and the US have put in place recently for enhancing dual-purpose and high-technology trade. French companies not only have the expertise, but are also keen to tap the huge potential of the Indian market in nuclear energy. Raffarin’s comments may be to remind India that it should also consider French companies while looking for help in this field.

Water management, joint defence co-operation and infrastructure development are other areas where India and France are likely to work in future.

However, if the aircraft deal is finalised soon and in favour of Airbus, it will help boost the confidence of the French government, as well as its business community, to invest in India.

On Iraq, Vajpayee clarified that the evidence produced by the US was not enough to prepare for military action. Though he stressed that Baghdad should comply with the Security Council resolution, he felt the inspectors should be encouraged to continue their work to find out whether any weapons of mass destruction had been hidden or overlooked.

The Prime Minister made it clear that he was not in favour of war in Iraq and felt the Security Council will be able to use “all its wisdom” to resolve the crisis in Iraq. The views of the French Prime Minister were almost identical.

This is Raffarin’s first visit outside Europe since he became Prime Minister. That India is an important country with which France wants strong bilateral ties, also prompted the French Prime Minister not to include any other country in his tour of South Asia. This was publicly appreciated by Vajpayee.

However, the main thrust of Raffarin’s visit was to strengthen economic co-operation between the two sides, which has not lived up to its potential despite the excellent political relations that India and France enjoys. Both sides stressed on this and this was the area of emphasis during today’s discussions between the two leaders.

Raffarin has come with a large business delegation, including top executives of big French companies and many representatives of France’s small- and medium-scale industry. The intention is to make them interested in India as an attractive and lucrative investment destination.

Till recently the focus of the French business community has been on China. The visit is an attempt to lay the groundwork for deeper economic cooperation.

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