When Francois Mitterand, the then leader of the French Socialist Party, was elected the French President in 1981 defeating Giscard d’Estaing from the right of the political spectrum, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had reasons to be concerned.
The French Right always had greater warmth for her and India than the French Left. She remembered how Georges Pompidou, who succeeded Gen. Charles de Gaulle as the President, and his Minister For Culture, Andre Malraux, stood by her and India during the exodus of millions of refugees from the then East Pakistan to India in 1971.Pompidou sent Malraux on a visit to the refugee camps as a mark of humanitarian solidarity with India.
She also remembered with gratitude the first steps towards a strategic partnership between India and France under the Presidentship of Giscard. The two flagships of this partnership were the close Indo-French co-operation in the nuclear and space fields and the co-operation between the external intelligence agencies of the two countries in collecting intelligence about developments in the Indian Ocean region.
She also remembered —but with embarrassment— how the French Left—particularly the Socialists— was embarrassed by her proclamation of the Emergency in 1975 and went out of its way to help George Fernandes and his wife Leela when they tried to evade arrests by her Government. The French Right too was embarrassed by the Emergency, but it did not show it in public and did not allow it to affect the relations between the two countries.
Of the French leftist parties, only the Communist Party, taking its cue from Moscow, kept quiet on the Emergency, but the Socialist Party made no secret of its discomfort over the violations of human rights and the trampling of democracy by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.
It was, therefore, not surprising that when Mitterand became the President in 1981, there was an ill-concealed unease in both New Delhi and Paris as to what impact the lingering bad taste of the Emergency in the French Socialist Party circles would have on bilateral relations. It spoke well of the political maturity of both Indira Gandhi and Mitterand that they did not allow this to come in the way of the developing bilateral relations. But there was a difference.
Warmth and substance were the defining characteristics of Indo-French relations under Pompidou and Giscard. The warmth continued under Mitterand too, but the substance became less noticeable. The co-operation in the nuclear and space fields continued, but the intelligence co-operation tended to get diluted.
Mitterand developed a good personal equation with Indira and Rajiv both of whom paid successful visits to France which were reciprocated by him. Mitterrand understood the importance of India as a market for the French aircraft industry. He was attracted and he admired the Indian democracy. He was uncomfortable with what was going on in China particularly after the Tianenmen Square massacre. India stood as a shining light in comparison with China.
But, still, he was not convinced of the importance of a substantial strategic relationship between India and France. In bilateral relations, warmth alone is not sufficient. Without substance, warmth serves only a limited purpose.
Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy who succeeded Mitterand after he completed his term in 1995, restored the badly-needed substance to Indo-French relations. They attached as much importance to India as they did to China—if not more. They supported India’s aspirations in the nuclear and space fields. Chirac refrained from creating difficulties for India after it carried out the 1998 nuclear tests.
Sarkozy became a very unpopular leader in France. He was hated because of his perceived arrogance, lack of sensitivity and other negative qualities. It is said that Francois Hollande has now been elected by the French people as the President not because he is Hollande, but because he is not Sarkozy.
But, Hollande is an unknown quantity even to the French. He has hardly held any important Government position. He has hardly ever made any important political statements on international relations. He has never been known as a man of vision. He is a good man, a noble soul. But that alone is not sufficient in leadership. The ability to think far ahead and to give practical shape to one’s thinking is important too.
He is equally an unknown quantity for us in India too. The Fench are a warm people—unusually warm if you can speak to them in French. One can expect with hope that he will be warm towards India like Sarkozy, Chirac, Mitterand, Giscard and Pompidou. But will he neglect the substance that was the characteristic of the days of the Right and let it be frittered away due to less interest in India?
One has to wait for the days to come to find a comforting answer to this question.