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I don't think there is anything to worry about: French Ambassador to India on Rafale deal controversy

France’s Ambassador to India Alexandre Ziegler with former Indian envoy to the US Arun Singh. Photograph:( WION Web Team )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Dec 27, 2018, 09.13 PM (IST)

Commenting on the controversial Rafale fighter jet deal, Alexandre Ziegler, Ambassador of France to India, on Thursday asserted that people should go by "facts and not the tweets."

Speaking to former Indian ambassador to the US Arun K Singh on WION's 'The Diplomacy Show', Ziegler, when asked about the ongoing controversy over Rafale deal, said, "Look at the track record of our 70-year-old relation, I don't think there is anything to worry about, honestly."

Here is the full transcript of the interview:

WION: Ambassador Ziegler, I recall just a few days ago you had invited me to the embassy at a very very exceptional event, honouring the participation of Indian soldiers in the First World War, fighting there on behalf of France, fighting against Germany and making a very important contribution. How has France looked at the contribution of Indian soldiers during the First World War, and then later during the Second World War?

Ziegler: Well, you know we do remember that ten thousand Indian soldiers actually died in France fighting for our freedom, fighting for our liberty. They made an exceptional contribution to the war effort. We have to honour their name; we have to honour memory- that's what the Vice President of India actually did in Paris, while inaugurating the very first Franco-Indian war memorial in north of France, but we also have to remember that we were not celebrating a victory, we were not celebrating the horrible fighting of World War I. We were celebrating peace, and peace doesn't have to be taken for granted in today's world, and this is also an opportunity to remember that we all have responsibilities in preserving peace, and that France and India do have a special responsibility in working together, so that these horrible fights of a century ago will never happen again. 

WION: Thank you. Thank you for that. India and France do work together to support many causes around the world, attempting to promote peace. and even in the First World War as you recalled, there were more than one and a half million Indian soldiers involved and, almost seventy-five thousand lost their lives. Prime Minister Modi, when he had visited France in 2015, had gone to Neuve Chapelle, which is a special monument dedicated to Indian soldiers who had sacrificed their lives at that time. But moving from there, because this is just one reflection of the cooperation that has been there, not just recent, but over time, so moving from there, if we look at the new areas of cooperation between our two countries and some of the very-very critical areas, how have you assessed the Defence Cooperation that exists between our two countries, because Defence Cooperation always reflects a heightened level of confidence in the relationship. 

Ziegler: No, that's true. We are celebrating this year - the 20th anniversary of our strategic partnership. France was actually the very first country with which India engaged into a strategic partnership in 1998 and it's not by chance. We've built with India over the past seven decades; a relationship that has always been based on large amount of trust, which is in today's world - a value that is probably the most important. We have always been with India in easy moments, which is easy, but also in difficult times. We've been an all-weather partner for India. 

WION: Can you mention in this context, when you say “one of the difficult times when France has been a partner of India?”

Ziegler: Well, 1998 for instance, nuclear testing, Kargil was also an example. So I think trust is at the very basis of our partnership, which is a very long lasting one. It's a seventy-year-old partnership actually, much longer than the 20-year-old strategic partnership.

WION: Sure, and what are the some of the specific areas of cooperation in defence?

Ziegler: We have engaged over the past decades in many Strategic Programs, Space Cooperation, and Civil Nuclear Cooperation- which are all long-term programs, which require once again, a very large amount of trust, defence equipment as well. We have been committed to ‘Make-in-India' for decades. We have manufactured with Indian partners, helicopters, missiles, many equipments. 

WION: In Defence, I recall that France has supplied submarines and partnered with India also for the assembling of submarines in India. It has supplied aircraft to India. The Mystère, the Mirage and now the Rafale. So, very strong cooperation. Now in that framework, some of the controversies that has arisen recently regarding Rafale, does that cause you any concern? 

Ziegler: Well, I would say, you know, very simply, look at the facts, not at the tweets. Look at the track record of our 60-year-old, 70-year-old relation in defence manufacturing and in defence procurement with India. Look at the facts, and I don't think there is anything to worry about, honestly. 

WION: And I do recall that the Mirage aircraft had been used very successfully by India in the context of the Kargil conflict that was there, and that is acknowledged, and you referred to 1998 and I think people here do recall that when we had done the nuclear tests in 1998, France was perhaps the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that had shown understanding for India's compulsions and opposed any sanctions against India. So I think that's perhaps the reason why we had entered into a strategic partnership, but going from defence to space, again for India we have a very ambitious space program, and France is one of the critical partners for India, and during the recent visit of President Macron to India in March, a joint vision on space cooperation was also signed. So can you talk a little about that too? 

Ziegler: Yes, you're right to mention it because our partnership is not only about history, it's about what do we do in the future, and we actually agreed last March (during President Macron's visit to India) on two major strategic vision documents - one of the Indian Ocean (maybe we'll come back to it later), and one on space. We have 40-year-old cooperation in space. India is actually the very first partner outside Europe for the French space industry and space research, and we wanted to give a new impetus to this field of cooperation, which will become even more strategic in the years to come. 

WION: Well, I do recall Ambassador Ziegler, that when I had served in France as India's Ambassador to France, I had made a visit to Kourou in French Guiana for the launch of an Indian satellite, and it was quite an experience, and we have launched almost 20 satellites from there using the Arianespace vehicle, and France has launched satellites from India, and we have done two joint satellites, and I understand that there are now plans for a third joint satellite?

Ziegler: Absolutely.

WION: What will be the focus of that? 

Ziegler: We've been working for years now on programs concerning satellites that have an active role in fighting climate change, climate monitoring, and environmental monitoring, and we are actually in the process of developing a third one, and as you rightly mentioned, we've been using our respective launchers to launch our satellites, and this is also a cooperation that is going to expand in the years to come. 

WION: And I was happy to note in the announcement that India and France would now also be cooperating in the missions to the Moon, Mars and Venus; but moving from space to civil nuclear cooperation, again an area for longstanding and critical cooperation between India and France. India and France had signed the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement between them in September 2008, before India had even signed it with the United States, yet so far concrete progress in implementation seems to have been absent. So can you talk a little about that? Why is it that we have not really made much progress in terms of actual plants or their operationalisation happening in India?

Ziegler: Well, I wouldn't agree on this. We've made quite a lot of progress. We signed last March, a very important document – ‘Industrial Way Forward Agreement’, that is actually concluding an agreement on the industrial scheme of our project of constructing six last-generation nuclear reactors, six EPR in the south of India in Jaitapur. It was the very first milestone. We are now engaged in two commercial negotiations. We've engaged also in negotiations on the financing part of it, but it's definitely moving. It's moving quite fast, and I'm very confident that we will reach an agreement. 

WION: So now moving from the bilateral to some of the regional and global issues, as you mentioned India and France recently signed the Joint Strategic Vision for the Indian Ocean cooperation, and there is a lot of talks now about the Indo-Pacific, and France also has a presence in the Pacific region. So how is France looking at the emerging challenge that people say from the rise of China from its growing economic military potential, the militarization of islands in the South China Sea, and how does it look at its various cooperation with countries in this region including with India in this context?

Ziegler: Well, we have two million inhabitants in the Indo-Pacific. We have also military assets, military capabilities in this region, but having 2 million inhabitants in this region means that what is happening in the Indo-Pacific is also of strategic importance for us, and we are facing with India the same challenges in this region. How do we maintain the freedom of navigation? How do we fight against piracy, against terrorism coming from the sea? How do we tackle the consequences of climate change? How do we work on Blue Economy in this region? How do we preserve the resources for fishing? So all these challenges that are being faced by India, they are also our challenges, so it was pretty normal that we should engage in strong cooperation with a country like India, which actually shares the same vision of the way the Indo-Pacific should evolve in the coming years.
 
WION: Another area I found Indian and French leaders emphasis is the commonality of values. 

Ziegler: Yes. 

WION: I also wanted to refer to the common challenges that both France and India face- the challenge of terrorism. France has been subjected to several terrorist attacks; India has faced the challenge of terrorism, cross-border terrorism. So how do you see the commonality of this challenge, and what the two countries are doing to work together here? 

Ziegler: Well, November has been a terrible month. We were commemorating the third anniversary of the Paris attacks where one hundred thirty-one people died three years ago, and India was commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks where almost 200 people died including actually French citizens. So we have to remember that we are faced with the same threat. It's a global phenomenon of course but being two democracies, being two democracies attacked by terrorists because we are democracies, because we are open societies. Of course, we have to find a common answer to it. We are sharing a lot. We are working a lot. It's actually one of the fastest-developing topics of cooperation within our strategic partnership, sharing intelligence, developing concrete cooperation between our police forces, but also working on what we can do on the Internet, what we can do on the Cyberspace to prevent the spread  of these awful ideas, that are not only limited to places in the world where we have to fight militarily as we are doing in Iraq, as we are doing in Syria, as we are doing in the Sahel region; but which are actually entering into your bedrooms through your computers, entering to your apartment; and I think this is a major challenge, and especially a major challenge for the two democracies, and this is among all the others, one of the topics on which we have been working a lot together with India over the past months. 

WION: That's good to hear - certainly an important area for cooperation. Another question I wanted to ask you about an area where France seems to be taking some lead, especially in Europe about dealing with the challenge posed by the new uncertainty emerging from the United States, where the US allies and others are questioning the level of US commitment, the trade and political challenges that are being posed to them and President Macron has spoken several times about Europe taking an independent posture. So, how is France looking at all that and how do you see this evolving? 

Ziegler: Well, you know we have a tradition in our diplomacy of strategic independence, of strategic autonomy. It dates back from the 60s. It's probably one of the reasons why we get along so well with India because we definitely share this concern, so it's part of our DNA, I would say. We are also allied with the United States. We are actually the oldest allies, historically of the United States. This alliance is important to us, and it is symbolized encapsulated within NATO. We are attached to NATO, but having said that, we also believe that the EU as such, Europe has to be perceived as a sovereign continent and has to invest more in protecting its citizens, in protecting its sovereignty, so that it can be an ally to the US, but not dependent. That's the very logic of what we are proposing, and I don't see honestly any contradiction between the two aspects. So you can be sovereign and you can be allied at the same time. That's exactly what President Macron is saying, and actually, by the way, I think that's very much in line with what President Trump was saying a year ago - when he was saying Europe should take more responsibility. 

WION: One of the challenges that France and Europe seem to be facing is in terms of its relationship with Russia, which is a very important partner also for India, and France at times has had a good relationship with Russia, but of late in the context of Crimea, Ukraine and perhaps other factors, there has been some differences in approach. Would it not make sense from France's perspective to work out an arrangement whereby Russia is working more closely with Europe, and not pushed in the direction of greater integration out of force with China? So, how does it work for France?

Ziegler: Well, of course, it does and that's exactly what we are doing. I'd say that the very DNA of the European project was based on the assumption that the territorial integrity of any European country, that the borders would never be touched anymore, that it wouldn't be an issue anymore, and that's very important for us, that's very symbolic also given the history of Europe and that's the reason why we couldn't accept what has happened in Ukraine. Having said that, I agree with you, Russia is our neighbour. We have a long historical, cultural, tradition of friendship with Russia. It is also one of the major powers in the world, and of course, we have to keep engaging with Russia, of course, we have to work with Russia. That's what we are doing actually, that's what we are doing on a daily basis, trying to solve crisis including what's happening today in Syria, and President Macron is keeping very regular contact and very deep contact with President Putin. Well, we want Russia and Europe to more proactively to solve the original crisis and the challenges.

WION: Certainly, I think from the perspective of Europe and the world, if Europe and Russia are able to work more closely together, then certainly it will have a positive impact.

Ziegler: Of course

WION: Ambassador Ziegler, I want to thank you for your very-very candid, very detailed responses to many of the questions, but before I close the interview, I wanted to move to some of your personal experiences and impressions. Now you have been in India for some time and you are from France, what do you find common between India and France?

Ziegler: We are two countries that managed to be global actors, very much engaged in globalisation, very proactive into this globalised world while being very much attached to preserving our tradition, our history, our heritage. I will take a concrete example. You have Hollywood and you have two countries with a major cinema industry in the world today, which are France and Bollywood and it's not only by chance. I think it tells something about the way we are approaching this new world - both globalised and attached to our tradition. From a more personal point of view, I would say that the warmth of the people is definitely something that we have in common. This immediate connection, this kind of irrational chemistry that makes people connect immediately. You know when I sit in a dinner in Delhi, if I close my eyes, I could be in Paris, the same kind of conversation, same kind of cultural, political, this debating society. This is something that we share very much in common, and that is very striking to all my French friends or colleagues who visit me in India. Secondly you were mentioning cuisine, obviously, we are two foodie nations and I think we are respectively in love with our gastronomy. 

WION: Well, talking of cuisine, I saw some reports in the media that you have said that you might turn vegetarian after a visit to Khajuraho and meeting a Jain seer there. Is there any truth to that? 

Ziegler: Well, it is an amazing story. Actually, I was in a private tour with my family in Khajuraho, and I came across this religious man who was really-really impressive, and we had a very deep conversation together, and I think we both agreed on the fact that we might have our culinary traditions, they are differences between France and India, and I am personally very much attached to my own culinary traditions, but there is one thing on which we should agree, and we actually do agree that we should go for a more sustainable way of feeding the planet. You can't feed seven billion people on the planet, the way you were feeding it even 20 or 30 years ago, and well we had a conversation on this and I think we agreed on this principle.

Story highlights

Speaking to WION, during 'The Diplomacy Show', Ziegler, when asked about the ongoing controversy over Rafale deal, said, "Look at the track record of our 70-year-old relation, I don't think there is anything to worry about, honestly."