New Delhi: French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in India on 25 January for a state visit aimed at boosting political ties, pushing for a bigger share of the booming Asian economy and revitalising weapons sales.
Defence contracts will be high on the agenda, with India ranked as the biggest weapons buyer among emerging nations and expected to spend an estimated $30 billion over the next five years.
France was the second largest arms supplier to India after Russia but has now been overtaken by Israel.
Sarkozy jetted into New Delhi without girlfriend Carla Bruni, although French and Indian media have speculated that the ex-supermodel and pop singer may join him later.
During his two-day visit, the president will be lobbying to revive a Eurocopter bid for a $600-million helicopter contract that New Delhi cancelled in December.
Indian defence sources said Eurocopter used a local go-between despite an Indian ban on middlemen in defence deals. India is to float a new tender and Eurocopter plans to bid again for the contract to supply 197 helicopters.
However, French firms are expected to be invited to upgrade India’s fleet of Mirage fighters in a contract worth up to $2.2 billion.
Talks will also touch on a nuclear cooperation agreement that has been in the works for years to allow France to supply equipment and fuel to India once it has cleared hurdles with the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
India, home to 1.1 billion people and with an economy expanding by 9% annually, has identified atomic energy as a crucial element to sustained growth.
But because of nuclear weapon tests in 1974 and 1998 India is currently banned from buying fuel for atomic reactors and related equipment.
The French deal hinges on the outcome of negotiations between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and with the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls the global nuclear trade.
The United States and Russia are also competing for a place in that market, just as they are for military contracts.
While the deals are expected to fall far short of the $30-billion trade bonanza Sarkozy signed recently in China, the state visit will “bring new impetus and significant depth to relations between our two democracies,” said Sarkozy’s spokesman David Martinon earlier this month.
The Indian foreign ministry said the visit was expected to yield agreements “in the fields of defence, railways, science and technology and education.”
Sarkozy is lined up for talks with President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and opposition leader Lal Krishna Advani. On 26 January he will be guest of honour at India’s annual Republic Day parade.
The latest French diplomatic foray in Asia has risked being eclipsed by intense media speculation over whether girlfriend Bruni would accompany him.
“As far as the delegation list that we have received, she is not coming,” Indian foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna told reporters on the eve of the visit.
He added, however, that Sarkozy was expected to make a private visit to the 17th century Taj Mahal, India’s famed monument to love, in Agra, prompting fresh speculation Bruni may be visiting despite a reported denial.
A senior Indian foreign ministry source had said Indian diplomats have been in a protocol quandary over how to treat Bruni.
In October, Sarkozy became the first French president to divorce while in office when he ended his stormy 11-year marriage to his second wife Cecilia.