Having arrived as France’s Ambassador to India in October 2019, Emmanuel Lenain was among 25 foreign envoys who were taken to Kashmir by the government last month. Following his visit, Lenain caused a stir when he said that while the authorities were making “significant efforts” to “normalise the situation” in the region, the remaining restrictions should be removed “as soon as possible”. A career diplomat, he has served in New York, Beijing and Washington DC. He is in India at a time when India-France ties are strengthening in a wide range of areas — defence, counter-terrorism, trade and nuclear, among others.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: In light of coronavirus, has France proposed any travel or health advisories concerning India?
All governments must handle it in a proper way, which means no panic but serious contingency. This can be managed if there is full cooperation and therefore we are very eager to work with the Indian authorities. We are in touch with the authorities, and we perfectly trust them… Right now, there is general advice for any trips outside France, to limit them, but no fear specifically about India.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Have India and France moved on from the Rafale deal controversy? What is the status of the delivery of the first batch of fighters?
Cooperation of this kind has been going on for decades between France and India, and it is not a surprise that we are ready to move on. There has been a controversy and it was linked very specifically to election time in India… It has been cleared by the Supreme Court. I don’t see any voice saying anything different after this ruling, even in the Indian political landscape… As for the delivery, everything is fine, everything is on time. Last October, the first Rafale was handed over to the Indian Defence Minister. The second, third, fourth are also being delivered on site in France as the choice was made by the Indian authorities for the pilots to be trained on site. Once the training is done, the planes will come to Indian soil, starting this May, perfectly on time as per the contract…
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Do you think the shadow of the Rafale controversy on future purchases is over?
I don’t see any more controversy. I think everyone now knows that this controversy was totally linked to politicians bickering at election time.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Do you think that with the Chinese chairmanship of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), it has become difficult to put Pakistan on the black list?
India and France are totally on the same page on counter-terrorism. My country, like India, has been a victim of terrorism, especially the dreadful attack in 2015 and later. It is a major field of cooperation between our governments, intelligence, and this includes cooperation at international fora. At New York (the UN Security Council), we have been very active to have some terrorists included by the sanctions committee. We won’t be deterred by any country when it comes to putting any terrorist on that list, whatever it takes and whether it takes some time… You mentioned the FATF… We are very clear that we want concrete results on counter-terrorism, which means we want financial curbs for terrorism… The neighbouring country (Pakistan) was put on the grey list at the last meeting to keep up the pressure on it to fulfill the points we had raised. We are totally determined that this is the case, and a re-assessment will be done at the next meeting in June.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: You went to Kashmir as part of the second batch of envoys taken by the government there. What was your sense of the trip, interactions there? Were things normal?
I understand it is not easy to go there on individual trips these days because of security reasons… Within that frame (of a government-organised trip), many interactions were provided to us, direct interaction, without mediation. We met people from civil society, business community, local journalists and civil servants. It was very clear that there are still challenges, of security, but the efforts by the government to move on and the aspirations of the people we met represent lot of reality. They were very clear that they wanted to move forward, get economic development.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Did any of the envoys of the two batches seek a meeting with the former chief ministers of J&K in detention now for more than six months? (Farooq Abdullah’s detention under the PSA was revoked on Friday.)
No, it was not a prerequisite… If we had been provided access to all people, to all parts of the reality of Kashmir, we would have taken the opportunity. But again, the important thing for us was to get a first glimpse from our eyes of what was going on….
You can’t say that (the situation) is totally normal. You can see that efforts towards normalcy are being made. We got a briefing from people in charge of the security, we got a briefing from government officials, nobody tried to convince us that things are back to normal. There have been challenges for a long time, but we saw big efforts were being made to move on, to bring back investors, to get jobs for the youth. Still there are obstacles, and restrictions that are yet to be lifted.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Do you think French investors would come to Kashmir?
The region is wonderfully beautiful… For investment, you need long-term perspective, you need to have clarity and the environment. It is going to take some time for international investors to come back.
RAVISH TIWARI: There is a fear that the entire visit of the envoys to Kashmir will be seen as a repeat of the Potemkin village chapter. That the government used the visit to give legitimacy to its actions there, especially amidst international criticism. Have you factored in this risk?
Firstly, I don’t think we have been given a Potemkin image (in 1787, Grigory Potemkin is said to have built a fake, portable village solely to impress Russian Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea). We were given a certain image, the officials, people we met had been selected by the government, so it was a partial image. But it was not a fake image. Secondly, I needed to view the situation from my eyes, that’s my job and that’s how I can make personal judgments about situations, advise my government. Then, as you may have seen, all of us refrained from making comments that could be used one way or the other. We went there to assess the situation, we didn’t go there to say this is right, this is wrong. Besides, I would say, the Kashmir issue has implications and that is why we are very vigilant. But, at the core of it, is our decision that it is a domestic issue, and that is why I am very cautious.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Recently, US President Donald Trump on more than one occasion talked about his willingness to mediate between India and Pakistan…
He likes to mediate… Well, there are two different sides. There are implications internationally, on regional security and beyond. That is why, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we are very vigilant… We see no added value in discussing the issue in the Security Council. The Security Council is not going to impose a solution. Each time, a country (Pakistan) has tried to bring the issue to the Security Council, we have opposed it.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: How does France view the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act?
These are internal issues, and my government, my authorities refrain comment on that. Obviously, we are always very attached to freedom of belief, and that is one reason why we admire India, which has traditionally been a very tolerant place for different groups and communities. But, it’s a domestic issue… Obviously, we are concerned when we see some violence. We admire the way there is real political debate in India all the time… very energetic, very vibrant… When it deteriorates into violence, we are concerned. But, it’s a domestic issue and we feel that in India, with its rule of law, these things can be solved through regular process. When you oppose a law, you can appeal to the court. That is also something we expect.
RAVISH TIWARI: Critically examining the five permanent members of the Security Council, the kind of heavy lifting that France has done for India, it outmatches even Russia in recent years. One view is that given the state of the French, or the entire European, economy, Paris sees the relationship as merely transactional, an economic opportunity, and that is what is dictating your position, whether it is on Article 370 or the CAA…
What you say is very cynical. How can you imagine that a country, my country, can take a position for a mere prospect of a military front?… Don’t forget that we were the first country to establish a strategic partnership with India in 1998. We have been side by side on all the major crises our countries have had… When you did your nuclear test in Pokhran in 1998, we were with you, some countries had put sanctions on India at that time. When you had difficulties with certain neighbours, we were always there. So why do we do that? To get one or two contracts? In international politics, you never take a certain alignment for purely commercial reasons. We have been doing that because we have made the assessment, and we have been proved right, that we have alignment on core interests and values. We are big democracies, we feel that we are attached to the law, international law to settle issues between countries, that we have interest in a free world, in an Indo-Pacific free world… My country wants to remain independent. We don’t want to be a junior partner, of either China, the US or whoever… And to get this independence, we have a strong anchor, which is that we have very strong partnerships with certain countries. At the core of these partnerships is parity. We want more partnership with you, and we want India to get a permanent seat in the Security Council. We feel it is high time, for the Security Council to reflect the reality of today.
AAKASH JOSHI: How does the unrest in India, including the recent Delhi riots, affect your outreach in India?
First, what we want is more people-to-people exchanges. We feel that no friendship can last between countries without it. Cultural (exchange) is one way to achieve it, but a more efficient way is to ensure that people travel to our country. So we welcome Indian students and tourists to come to France. The figure has doubled in the last two years. For students, we are offering scholarships, we have more partnerships with schools, and we are providing more and more courses entirely in English… We had 10,000 Indian students in France last year. Within five years, that number will reach 20,000… We are going to reach one million (Indian) tourists soon. We have the Alliance Française. We have 30,000 students now, we will have 35,000… We are working on very ambitious preparations. I don’t see any reason for it to be disrupted. We all hope that events like what we have seen in Northeast Delhi are behind us… Right now we have no reason to cancel any events anywhere in India.
UDIT MISRA: While Kashmir and the CAA are domestic issues, does France have a problem with the way things are being pushed in India? There is criticism over decisions being taken without any discussion and debate. Does this bother France?
India is a democracy that believes in the rule of law. In that case, there is not much for international partners to talk and discuss about. If the assumption is that India is no longer a democracy, and the institutions are not functioning, that is another issue. But I haven’t seen anybody challenging that right now.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Do you think the anti-CAA protests across the country and the riots in Delhi will deter French businesses from investing in India?
According to my record, French companies already provide roughly 350,000 jobs in India. They are very eager to be part of the huge transformation going on in this country. They want to be part of the ecological transformation, which means sustainable development. Ten per cent of the solar power in India has been installed by French companies… We want to be part of the urban transformation of your country. We are world leaders in (constructing) subways, anything pertaining to smart cities.
We also want to be a part of the digital transformation of your country. We already have some companies investing heavily. French companies such as Capgemini will soon reach 150,000 employees in India… Is the image of India these days an obstacle? Honestly, when companies are investing, they are long-term investors, you have a 10-year, 20-year perspective. If you look at 20 years, India is just growing huge.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: Over the past few years, since 2018 , most of the news that we come across in the international media from France is about deep social unrest which seems to be manifesting itself in a lot of street violence and protests — the Yellow Vests movement, the transport strike over the pension reforms. What has triggered the recent unrest?
The Yellow Vests movement is different from previous movements… A certain part of the population feels that due to globalisation, tomorrow will be worse than today, and that things are going to be even worse for their kids. It’s a perception… Perception is very important in politics. They are not poor people, they are not people without jobs, they are people who work hard and feel that the opportunities to access some services are not as they were. The government has recognised this and a huge plan has been launched. In the meantime, the government is committed to keep on reforming the country. My president wants France to be the most competitive country, and since he came to power there have been numerous reforms.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Has India’s economic profile taken a beating in the international community?
Growth is slower but I would say there is a global component in it. There has been some very impressive progress in the Indian economy. India jumped up in ‘ease of doing business’. Would we like to see some additional reforms? Yes. Would we like to have less barriers? Yes. We would like to see lesser taxes on products which are very important for French economy. We would like to have less taxes on food and agriculture. Would we like more investment in infrastructure? Yes. Our companies and we are very optimistic of the future of India. They are not looking for cheap returns, they are long-term investors.
RAVISH TIWARI: In your view, how is democracy shaping up in Europe?
Europe is not immune from populism tendencies… We have seen globalisation unleash some forces because of which a part of the middle class feels disenfranchised and frustrated by the way their lives have been altered. But, he (the French president) has tried to have a very responsible, ambitious policy for Europe by proposing to move forward and, so far, Europe is moving.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Although France was the first to sign an agreement with India after the NSG waived rules that forbid nuclear trade with a non-NPT signatory, the construction of the six European pressurized reactor units at Jaitapur hasn’t really moved as fast as it should have. What are the hurdles?
In nuclear energy, you have to be safe… It does take time. When you build nuclear plants, you commit yourself for as much as a century… We already have two plants in China. We have plants under construction in the UK. They are perfectly on time… We think we have a great technology. What remains to be discussed… we have technical issues, issues about responsibility, which you call civilian nuclear liability. The progress is fast, we are almost there.
The other is the commercial aspect. The companies are discussing among themselves. We are committed to the best price for Indian companies.
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