COVID-19 won't delay Rafale delivery: French Ambassador to India

“Pre-COVID-19, we had 10,000 students from India in 2019. I am confident that we will recover that level next year,” says Ambassador Emmanuel Lenain.

What are the goals of your current visit to Tamil Nadu?

It is my second visit to Tamil Nadu because cooperation with Tamil Nadu is very important for France. We have a rich history with Puducherry and with Tamil Nadu, going back centuries. We have a strong respect for the Tamil culture. We have significant business interests in Tamil Nadu. It is a top hub for French industrial investment in India.

My goal here is to develop this partnership, move forward faster and to make things easier, to have more business going between Tamil Nadu and France, to have more human exchanges also and more students from Tamil Nadu coming to French universities and colleges. They are very welcome. Pre-COVID-19, we had a record of 10,000 students from India coming to France in 2019. I am confident that as of next year, we will recover that level. We are going to do everything it takes. I hope that a significant part of the students will come from Tamil Nadu because I knew that the universities and the colleges here are very excellent. It is my sincere wish that we get many more students from Tamil Nadu coming to France to study.

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What is the situation of French economic presence in Tamil Nadu and are there new French business initiatives planned in this region?

So how can businesses from Tamil Nadu reach markets and clients in France? What makes France an attractive destination for Tamil Nadu investors?

I think they could do very well. They are very welcome! Indeed, another purpose of my visit was to introduce the reforms that are being carried out in France. In France right now, you have the most pro-business government since years. Since he was elected, President has said he wanted France to be the most competitive country in Europe. I must say that the results are there. Last year, France was the Number One destination in continental Europe for attracting investments.

I am sure that in the post-Brexit context, many companies from India and from Tamil Nadu are going to look at France, given the state of the economy, given the quality of education and the geography. It is the best platform you can have to access the European market and even the market in Africa, which is very important to India.

COVID-19, like in India, has had a deep effect on the economy. But France has launched a massive stimulus plan to support the economy, which amounts to 10% of the GDP and it will help a lot. I am confident, and we are well organised to support Indian investors, who want to invest in France.

The pandemic has re-focused attention on important questions regarding health and the environment – do you think cooperative efforts between France and Tamil Nadu can help answer some of these?

Firstly, I must say that there has been a massive help from India to France and from France to India. We are very grateful. When we had our first COVID-19 peak in France, Indian authorities authorised the export of medical drugs that were direly needed for French hospitals. President Macron then decided to reciprocate and to send ventilators, testing kits and protection masks and medical doctors from the Army service. They arrived in July to assist India when it was the first big peak in India. So, country-to-country solidarity has been intensely active.

Regarding Tamil Nadu and private companies, the French companies in Tamil Nadu were exemplary. Internally, they retained their workforce. They did not cut their salaries. Some of them reorganised their production to be able to produce equipment for Indian hospitals.

Yesterday I went to see Air Liquide Medical Systems. On-site, they manufactured ventilators, which were adapted to the need of the Indian hospitals. They ramped up their efforts and produced more than 1,000 ventilators. That is one good example. Another good example is a company like Renault, the car producer. They switched the assembly lines to be able to produce ventilators. Many of the companies were impressive and showed solidarity.

You mentioned Brexit earlier and so much has happened this year even in terms of the trade war between the U.S. and China and the U.S. election. How does France see itself in terms of investment and growth, engaging with a country like India in this new and changing global climate?

One of the lessons that all governments drew from the COVID crisis is the need for strategic autonomy on certain essential production capacity; that you cannot rely entirely on certain countries. It is true for certain medical products. Where do we go as far as France is concerned, as Europe is concerned?

It is not autarky. We are not going to bring back every supply chain from other places to Europe. That is not realistic. What is going to happen? There will be some production capacities that we will bring back to Europe because they are needed for sovereignty. And companies are going to localise in friendly and reliable countries. India is at the top of the list. When you are making an investment for 10, 20 or 30 years, you want to make sure of the partner you choose.

With India, we share the same democratic values, we have similar strategic interests, and we have a long-standing partnership. We have had a strategic partnership for decades, and we knew that each time one of the countries went through difficult times, we stood side-by-side.

When India carried out a nuclear test in Pokhran, many countries blamed and even sanctioned India. France did not do that, we stood by India. Kargil was another example of solidarity in trying times. That is what I mean by being reliable friends. And that also applies to vital supply chains in the post-pandemic world, we know we can trust each other.

Speaking of the strategic cooperation, the Rafale deal has moved forward but I think the full delivery of aircraft is expected only by 2022. Has the pandemic led to any delays, potentially? Do we see that schedule being shifted?

As per the contract, all 36 aircraft will be delivered by 2022. I am very proud to say that, although France also had a lockdown in the spring 2020 and factories closed for a while, our defence industries have doubled efforts; they have worked extra shifts and overnight or weekends to be able to deliver and to supply the Rafale jets on time. Everything was done precisely on schedule despite COVID-19. It is a big matter of pride. Right now, 15 Rafale have been delivered to India.

According to the contract, they are delivered in France, in Mérignac, where they are produced. Then it is up to India to decide on how long they keep the jets in Mérignac, where they can train the pilots and the technicians. Then, India decides when it wants to ferry the jets to India. Right now, eight of them have been ferried to India. We have been perfectly on target and it seems that the Indian Air Force is fully satisfied with jets and the pilots are doing a great job.

When I was mentioning the very good relations between the two countries, I can tell that Ministers and government officials on both sides have contacts on every other day to exchange. Yesterday, Prime Minister Modi and President Macron spoke on the phone, and they had a very good conversation, like close partners, discussing global issues, including the UN.

Because India is going to join the UN Security Council [after being elected as a non-permanent member for a two-year term starting January 2021] and we are very happy about that and look forward to working together very closely. [They discussed] how we can fight COVID-19, how we provide access to vaccination for our countries, how to expand our strategic partnership and how to deepen our bilateral cooperation in defence and civilian nuclear energy. These ongoing discussions are based on exceptional mutual trust.

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