| Sitting in the Charles de Gaulle office, his first floor office in the majestic Elysee Palace, overlooking the well-manicured garden in the 300-year-old Presidential palace in Paris, Jacques Chirac, 73, the fifth President of the fifth republic of France, comes across as a true charmer. The soft spoken former Paris Mayor, who heads the French republic, is a firm believer in multipolarity and world peace, inspired by Buddha whose statue is one among a vast array of African and Asian objects de' arte that provide a colourful backdrop. An astute world leader, an animal lover, the Harvard alumnus wanted to become a Sanskrit Scholar, but left it midway only to discover it through Indian culture and tradition. He is hosting a Gupta art exhibition in Paris and the capital is all set to open the biggest tribal art museum in the world, where Indian tribal art will find a prominent place. |
On the eve of his visit, his sixth to India and second as President, Chirac sat down for an exclusive interview with India Today Editor Prabhu Chawla and Associate Editor Saurabh Shukla at the Elysee. He preferred to speak in French through an interpreter, but was at his witty best, describing himself as the biggest world leader in terms of size, if not seniority. He spoke about a range of issues__from the cartoon controversy that has spread like wildfire to the row over the hostile takeover of European Steel major Arcelor by L.N. Mittal which has evoked a sharp reaction from Paris.
Chirac, who is leading a high-powered delegation to India for a summit with the Indian leadership, comprising five cabinet ministers and 35 head honchos of French corporations, including nuclear giants like Areva, is set to issue a declaration on civilian nuclear cooperation and defence cooperation agreement besides half a dozen other agreements with India. While the Clemencau controversy that nearly clouded the visit may not be a stumbling block any more, Chirac is sure that his passage to India will etch a new chapter for Indo-French ties. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. W hat are your expectations from this visit as you are perhaps the only President to have visited India twice?
A. It is a very great pleasure for me. It has been eight years now since I visited India. And I am especially delighted with this opportunity to go back to this great country of yours, for which I have great admiration. I firmly believe that between us, we have all the assets required to build a special partnership in every possible field: India as a great emerging power, and France, at the core of the European Union. However, the full potential of our relations has not yet been tapped. How to do so will be a central topic in the discussions I will be having with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I also believe that this dialogue, built as it is on trust - like that which our two countries enjoy with our major partners - is a key element in the assertion of that peaceful international order so ardently desired by both our states; an order based on law and dialogue between the great regional groupings of the world and which respects the diversity of peoples, cultures and civilizations. Since then, these relations have continued to grow stronger. As you know, I was the first one to argue in favour of India, a responsible power, being given the status of permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. If our partnership is to retain its vitality, it must be nourished by contacts at the highest level, which is precisely what we do with our major partners - Germany and the United Kingdom in Europe, of course, but also with the United States of America, China, Russia, Brazil and others. The visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Paris on September 12 last year was particularly important in that it marked India's continuing commitment to our relations, and this is also the purpose of my visit to India.
Q. We understand that France is planning a new initiative to bring India into the fold of nuclear haves and to provide a framework of civilian nuclear cooperation with India . Have you reached an agreement?
A. France was the first country to argue at international level in favour of India, as a responsible power, gaining access to civilian nuclear technologies. The process of reflection initiated by France is continuing today, since the Indo-American declaration on July 18th, with the support of the American administration and other major partners. Recognition of a special status for India with respect to the NSG is a priority objective for us. We are close to reaching agreement, but more work is required on both sides. As concerns cooperation with France, the draft agreement we are preparing reflects the scope of the cooperation we are prepared to embark upon with India in this field, in full compliance with our international undertakings.
Q. If you consider India responsible, why is there a delay in having the agreement, what more can you do at the NSG to help India?
A . Because it is a multilateral issue. But India must have a specific status with respect to the NSG to allow it access to the necessary technologies while respecting the principle of non-proliferation. France stands firmly alongside India, a responsible power, in this question of modifying the rules of the NSG. It is only if these modifications are allowed that we can reconcile our aim to cooperate in this area with the constraints imposed on us by our international undertakings.
Q. Then can we expect that you and our Prime minister will be able to convince President Bush?
A. That depends on President Bush. He will be going to India within a month, and I very much hope that your Prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, will be able to persuade him. Certainly our position is very clear, and we are pressing for the international community to move on this matter.
Q. There have been strong protests against Cl�menceau. Do you think the controversy could have been avoided earlier, now Wh y have you decided to bring back the Clemenceau to France ?
A. I regret that the controversy happened. As you know, the French Administrative Court has ruled that the export of the Clemenceau to India should be suspended. I have decided that the Clemenceau should be brought back to France and that a final solution be found for its dismantling.
Q. Should India be used for dumping environmentally dangerous articles?
A. This is a very highly sensitive matter which raised questions and worries, in India and in France as well, despite all precautions taken to ensure the environmental and health soundness of the operation. Therefore, I have decided that we will consult with our European partners in order to consider strengthening of the European depollution capabilities and in order to accelerate ongoing international discussions on environmental, social and health standards that should surround the export of ships for dismantlement in third countries.
Q. The bilateral economic relationship between France and India are still dismal. Trade between the two countries is barely Euro 3.5 billion per year or less than one third which India does with Chin a. Do you intend to do something about it?
A . Trade flows, in my view, are still too low. One of the purposes of my trip to India is precisely to further boost these exchanges. It is one of my aims -which of course the Prime minister and I see eye to eye- to develop economic exchanges, boost them significantly. Our economic relations are developing at a very steady pace, having grown by 30% in 2004 and 42% in 2005. In 2005, Indian airline companies ordered almost 250 aircraft from Airbus, which will obviously impact trade flows between us. However, it is clear that our economic relations are neither on the same level as our political relations nor commensurate with the capacity of French companies, which are among the world leaders in sectors vital for the development of India. Many of them were keen to accompany me on this state visit to demonstrate their desire to establish durable partnerships with their Indian counterparts.
Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh and I have set a target of doubling the volume of our bilateral trade in the next five years. To achieve this, we have decided to adopt a proactive policy of establishing closer relations between the economic decision-makers in our two countries and setting up partnerships between businesses in priority sectors: infrastructure, information technologies, pharmaceutical products, the environment, cutting-edge and new technologies, agribusiness and the automobile and aviation industries. We have also agreed to make a particular effort to stimulate development of relations between French and Indian SMEs.
This policy will benefit in France from strong governmental support. This is why I will be bringing with me, Mr. Philippe Douste Blazy, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Mme Michelle Alliot-Marie, Minister of Defence, but also Mr. Thierry Breton, Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry, Mme Christine Lagarde, Minister for Foreign Trade, and Mr. L�on Bertrand, Minister for Tourism.
Q. Who is responsible for this poor state of economic link s - Indian authorities, French authorities or the companies themselves?
A. Everyone collectively. Anyway, the situation right now is more favorable than it has been in the past, with a clear determination on the part of the French authorities to boost trade with India, likewise on the Indian side I know the importance that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attaches to continuing to improve the conditions of access for foreign companies to the Indian market and the protection of intellectual property. Tariff and non-tariff barriers still handicap exports of certain prestigious French products, such as wine, for instance. Sectors such as investment, the distributive trades and financial services, areas in which France has acknowledged expertise, are still comparatively closed to foreign capital. Progress in this field would facilitate the strengthening of our relations.
Q. But all this depends on a liberalised visa regime, while Indian authorities give about 600 visas per day, the French numbers are low. Isn't that a barrier?
A .We will of course be looking at this issue, in an as open mind as possible, with the view precisely to develop our relationship.
Q. Speaking of barriers to economic relationship, the Arcelor example and the French reaction to that. Isn't there something of a contradiction between your willingness to develop commercial relations and your objections?
A . I would not put it quite in these terms. First of all, the company which is willing to take over Arcelor is not an Indian company. It is a Dutch company.
Q. But it is owned and operated by person of Indian origin?
A. Certainly, but the problem has nothing to do with the Chairman, Mr Mittal. It is a Dutch company and Arcelor is a Luxemburg company. Basically we are dealing with a Luxemburg company and a Dutch company. It has nothing to do with France and India.
Q: But what is the opinion of your Government to the bid?
A. French authorities do have a point of view which is the defense of the shareholders and of the company. Again, there is room for wondering on questions such as different corporate cultures between Arcelor and Mittal, or the conditions of the buy.
Q. If shareholders' interests were better understood, you would have no objection to the buy?
A . Again, the French Government is a stakeholder, not a shareholder. Given the circumstances of the case, it would appear that it is not in the best interest of the company. This is a general sense that we have, and it is up to the two companies involved to agree on the terms. It has got nothing to do with India. The main shareholder is Indian, but he could be of any other citizenship. That is the way we see the problem.
Q. You made a measured statement about the cartoon controversy. Do you think that some people will deliberately try to pick up the controversy to create a division between the Western world and the Islamic world?
A . I am appalled by what happened as a result of the publication of these cartoons. I am of course in favour of the freedom of the press, which is a pillar of democracy. But I equally am for the principle of respecting everyone sensibility. I respect the beliefs of those who have, or don't have, a religion. And I am also in favour of dialogue between cultures and civilisation, against confrontation. So I deplore this situation.
Q. Do you think action undertaken by certain countries in the region contributed to this situation? Do you think American troops should withdraw from Iraq?
A. These are two separate issues. You know France's position on the war in Iraq. We have always been against. We are now in a very difficult situation, but we want full restoration of Iraq's unity and sovereignty. International troops will eventually have to be withdrawn. And we should know when.
Q. You have been a champion of multipolarity, but at the same time, you agree with some of American stances. So is not your stance on multipolarity a bit weakened by your stance?
A. Indeed, I am deeply attached to the principle of multipolarity. And I think there is no other means by which we can maintain a balance in the world, but by multipolarity. And it flows naturally. When you look around you, frankly countries like India and China are political centers at least as important; weigh at least as heavily as the United States or Europe. That is the reason why I was one of the very first to call for and to be in favour of India being a permanent member of the Security Council. I continue to militate actively in favour of India being given the responsibility they should rightly have.
Q. A re you now friendlier with President Bush than Prime Minister Tony Blair as you speak almost in similar voices on many international issues?
A. I don't understand why you say that.
Q. For instance on certain global issues, on Iran, and the nuclear issue?
A. No . On the nuclear problem, I am in favour of maintaining a balance. We must stop and prevent nuclear proliferation.
Q What about the Iran issue? Do you think sanctions should be imposed against Iran or diplomacy should be given a chance?
A. We are in close consultation with India, as indeed with all our partners, with the aim of persuading Iran to comply fully with its obligations in the question of non-proliferation. This issue is vital for international peace and security and for the effectiveness of non-proliferation arrangements throughout the world. Despite the efforts undertaken by the Europeans over the last three years, we are unfortunately forced to admit today that Teheran has not responded to the European proposals and has gone back on the undertakings given. In light of this situation, every country and every institutional body must accept its responsibilities.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna will be presenting its report to the Security Council in March. I hope that between now and then, Iran will decide to seize the hand that is still extended to it.
Q. You had a very clear position on cases like Iran North Korea and Pakistan. Do you think countries which might represent a threat to the international community should be deprived from access to nuclear energy? Also in extreme cases, should we use nuclear weapons to neutralize those countries?
A. If you are referring to my speech on France's nuclear doctrine, you will see there is no change in the French position on the subject, which remains that of deterrence.
Q. The controversy over the turban ban imposed in France had evoked some amount of concern in India, why was the ban imposed?
A. Wearing of the Sikh turban is not forbidden in France and Sikhs are free to practice their religion. Certain types of behaviour made it necessary for us to vote a law to guarantee our tradition of secularism. It applies only in state schools, primary and secondary. As concerns the Sikhs, we encountered difficulties with a very small number of cases. Close dialogue was established with the families concerned and representatives of the Sikh community in France, with which we have always enjoyed excellent relations. This law is now well understood and accepted.
Q. France was one of the first P-5 countries to support India's candidature for the Security Council, but now it seems the expansion may be stuck. Do you think India requires a change of strategy to enter the Security Council and how can France help India's candidature?
A. For the United Nations to play its role fully, it is necessary to reinforce its authority and legitimacy in particular, improving the representative nature of its various agencies. Opening up the Security Council to include new permanent members is a priority in this respect. I believe firmly that this reform will be imposed in the end, since it is eminently logical. France will not spare its efforts to promote the candidature of India and support the strategy, which India may define to gain access to the Security Council.
Q. Some countries have supported the entry of India into the G-8, what is your position?
A. This is the direction in which history is leading us. It is why in 2003 I invited the Indian Prime Minister to the broader G8 dialogue organised by France in Evian. The world needs the voice of the great emerging countries such as India to be heard and for them to participate fully in the work of reflection and actions to humanise and regulate globalisation.
Q. Terrorism has become a global scourge what more can India and France do to combat international terrorism?
A. Nothing can justify such acts. Faced with this global threat, we must reinforce international cooperation, which is the only way of dismantling the networks of logistical support and funding…. The fight against terrorism is therefore a key element in our strategic dialogue with India. We are particularly attached to ensuring that this fight is carried on in full compliance with the law, The United Nations must also fully play its role. Here, France supports the Indian proposal of a general convention on terrorism.
Q. Do you think the global contradictions and conflicts have been increasing since one country the US is trying to emerge as world's sole superpower, what do you think important countries like France and India can do to check this?
A. New powers are emerging in the world, whether countries like India or China or groups of countries like ASEAN or Mercosur. They form new groupings that combine economic power and political will. It is only by recognising this new reality of a multipolar and interdependent world that we will be able to build an international order that is both safer and more just. Neither the USA nor Europe, nor any other international player acting on its own has the means today to solve all the challenges of the world. We must all work together to deal with the challenges of this new century and help create this new world order for which both India and France have always called, based on those values of democracy, freedom and human rights that form the basis of the United Nations Charter. This is how we will guarantee the support of all peoples, their liberty and respect for their identity.
Q. President, a major indicator of a greater degree of trust is that India and France have enhanced their defence cooperation, Scorpene submarine deal has been cleared and we believe during your visit to India defence cooperation will be further strengthened what more are you planning to enhance defence cooperation between the two countries.
A. You are right to emphasize the exemplary nature of the agreement to supply the "Scorpene" submarine, which corresponds perfectly to the general spirit that permeates all our bilateral relations. This is not simply a commercial contract but a genuine joint industrial project accompanied by broad transfer of technology and know-how. The signature of a framework cooperation agreement in the field of defence by the French Minister of Defence, Mme Michelle Alliot-Marie and her Indian counterpart, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, will give formal recognition to the relations of trust that have existed for many years between our two armed forces. It should facilitate implementation of joint projects in the field of key defence equipment. You are aware of how long our relations date back in the field of military aviation, for example, and the degree of trust that characterises them.
Q. President, you have had one of the worst racial riots in France in recent years, and it seems that this is not the problem of France alone but entire Europe where ethnic minorities feel alienated, in India too we have had some problems but despite diversity India has managed to run a secular system that works well, do you think France can emulate the Indian model of religious cohesion?
A. In the incidents that you mention, there was never, at any time, any open opposition between communities. It is therefore not correct to speak of "race riots" or problems of a religious nature. We were confronted with a serious public order problem in neighbourhoods facing particular difficulties in terms of social order. Our priority was, first of all, to restore order and ensure respect for the law. We must then tackle the reasons for this outbreak, by reinforcing actions aimed at reducing unemployment in underprivileged neighbourhoods. More generally, these disturbances revealed a certain anxiety amongst young people concerning the future. To remedy this, we have made equality a priority theme for government action in 2006. You are right to emphasize the similarity of our models. I can assure you that France intends to remain faithful to its principles and its values and guarantee the same rights and obligations for every citizen and resident of our country, whatever his or her origins, religious beliefs or place of residence.
Q. President, another area of cooperation between our two countries is in the field of scientific cooperation and specifically space cooperation, what more is on the anvil to cement the partnership between the two countries ?
A. India is one of France's most important partners in terms of space cooperation. The CNES, the French Space Agency has with his counterpart, the ISRO, a certain number of ambitious cooperation projects. The project currently the furthest advanced is the launch in 2009 of the first Franco-Indian satellite, "Megha-Tropiques" which is designed to study tropical weather systems, particularly the monsoons that have so great an influence on the life of the population and the Indian economy as a whole.
Q. India and France are time tested strategic partners but what more do you think is required from both sides to make it a dynamic partnership ? What more is your Government planning to enhance Indo-French cultural, educational and people to people links?
A. India and France, both countries embodying a great culture, enjoy very long and rich cultural relations. Your country has always exerted a great fascination and not just on intellectuals. Many French people attend the concerts of your great classical musicians when they visit France. Indian cinema is increasingly well known and appreciated in France, as we can see from the many numbers of people who went to cinemas to watch the films Swades and Devdas. I am also pleased that French cinema is beginning to find an audience in India.
Cultural cooperation is a dimension of our relations to which I attach great importance, since it guarantees long-lasting ties between countries. This is why I am happy that one of the great projects particularly dear to my heart, the exhibition of Gupta art, will be going ahead at the Grand Palais in 2007. When the exhibition opens, I will be thinking of the great Jawaharlal Nehru, G�n�ral de Gaulle and Andr� Malraux, who, 47 years ago, together inaugurated the exhibition "Tr�sors de l'Inde", which all who saw still remember. At the same time, a programme of related events will be organised in India around exhibitions, concerts and ballets. Conservation of heritage is another important dimension of our cultural cooperation. The remarkable rehabilitation of the historic centre of Ahmenabad by French architects is part of this process.
If there is a field in which we must do much more, it is that of exchanges between our students. The number of Indian students in France has doubled in 5 years but it is still well below our potential for cooperation with a country like India that has 225 universities. We must multiply contacts between them and our research laboratories and other institutions of higher education. This is a subject, which the Prime Minister and myself identified as a priority during our discussions last September. In order to achieve this, we will be reinforcing our action and will be creating a centre for studies in France to facilitate dissemination of information and procedures for Indian students.
I note that an increasing number of them are learning French in order to be able to study in France, particularly through our network of Alliances fran�aises, the third largest network in the world in terms of the number of students enrolled to study French! We have also increased the number of bursaries set aside for Indian students. Talks have been initiated to establish an agreement for the recognition of diplomas. During this state visit, we will also be signing the first double diploma agreement between the prestigious IIM Ahmedabad our own prestigious business school, ESSEC. This is an example that we must encourage. Likewise, I am encouraging French students to go to India.