France, India to focus talks on defence deal, clean energy

NEW DELHI: Amid the pomp of a military parade, the leaders of France and India are planning ambitious discussions next week in New Delhi that could end with a multibillion-dollar deal for combat airplanes and closer cooperation on counterterrorism and clean energy.

French President Francois Hollande arrives Sunday to tour the northern city of Chandigarh before traveling to the Indian capital for meetings with officials and a place as guest of honor on Tuesday at India's Republic Day parade, celebrating 66 years since the country adopted its constitution.

High on the agenda will be India's desire to purchase 36 Rafale combat planes for its air force, which Modi had announced during a visit to Paris in April, touching off several rounds of negotiations over pricing, offsets and servicing.

Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said last week that the deal was "close to completion," and another Indian official said this week that the two sides hoped to sign a deal during Hollande's visit. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with media.

India and France have shared close ties for decades, holding high-level meetings every year since signing a strategic partnership agreement in 1998. They share concerns over terrorism, climate change, space exploration and military cooperation.

India first began talking to France four years ago about buying 126 Rafales — a deal that would have cost roughly $12 billion, with a majority of the planes to be made in India. New Delhi has since pared that order down to 36 "ready to fly" planes, to be built in France.

France has also promised support for India's clean-energy quest, including a solar energy alliance launched last month during the global climate talks held in Paris.

Hollande and his French officials are also likely to press India about ongoing delays in building a six-reactor nuclear power plant complex in the town of Jaitapur in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. French nuclear giant Areva SA and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India agreed in 2010 to build the 9,900-megawatt facility, but progress has been slow amid disputes over land rights and Indian laws on accident liability.

Paris has said it could help India upgrade its crumbling railway infrastructure, especially with its expertise in high-speed trains. Japan also said recently that it would fund a "bullet train" connecting the Indian financial capital of Mumbai with the western city of Ahmadabad.

Indian officials said France and India were working hard on an agreement for another high-speed link in northern India, but would not immediately say which cities might be along the route.

Hollande begins his trip Sunday by visiting Chandigarh, which stands as the capital of both Punjab and Haryana states. Designed in the 1950s by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, Chandigarh is one of three cities that France has pledged to help develop as so-called "smart cities" — with clean water supplies, efficient sewage disposal and public transportation, among other programs. The other two cities adopted by France are the central city of Nagpur and the former French colony of Pondicherry in the south.

Hollande will be accompanied by a high-profile delegation including the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, economy and culture and dozens of top corporate leaders.

In Chandigarh, Hollande and French business leaders will meet with Indian counterparts eager to boost bilateral trade, which in 2014 stood at $8.6 billion. New Delhi is also trying to encourage French companies to tap into India's economic boom.

On Monday, Hollande will hold talks in New Delhi with Modi and other Indian officials. The two leaders are expected to touch on anti-terrorism efforts including speeding up extradition requests and cracking down on money laundering used to fund militant activities.

Vikas Swarup, spokesman for India's foreign ministry, noted that both countries had been hit by militants recently, with 130 people killed across Paris on Nov. 13 and a four-day siege against the north Indian air force base of Pathankot that left seven Indian soldiers dead earlier this month.

"Following the horrendous attack in Paris and the recent terrorist attack at the Pathankot air base, it would be worth highlighting that cooperation between France and India on matters related to counterterrorism has acquired a very significant dimension," Swarup said at a media briefing Thursday. "Both India and France are victims of terrorism and we can expect a lot of discussions on this particular issue."

Hollande caps his visit on Tuesday by attending a two-hour parade displaying India's military hardware and marching bands. He would be the fifth French president invited as the guest of honor at the ceremony. Last year, US President Barack Obama joined Modi at the parade.