French president in India to push trade deals

Francois Hollande arrives in New Delhi with ministers and business leaders to push for contracts including fighter jets.

    Francois Hollande, the French president, has arrived in India with a delegation of ministers and business leaders to push a nuclear power deal and the sale of billions of dollars of Rafale fighter jets.

    Hollande, who is on his first visit to Asia since taking office last year, is accompanied by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and the chiefs of more than 60 top French companies.

    The trip is aimed at building on the "strategic Indo-French partnership launched 15 years ago," a French official said.

    Both Indian and French officials say the mission underscores the importance France attaches to ties with the world's second-fastest growing major economy.

    "Our relations are growing fast in all sectors ... in economic, industrial and commercial spheres," an Indian foreign ministry official said, while cautioning against expecting any major announcements from Hollande's visit.

    Hollande held talks with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and other ministers in New Delhi before travelling to financial hub Mumbai, where he will meet some of the country's biggest business leaders. Both men said after their meeting that the fighter jet sale was moving forward.

    "The discussion on the [contract] is progressing well," Singh said, with Hollande adding that "some progress has been achieved."

    Fighter jets deal

    The French business leaders reflect the wide range of firms interested in export opportunities in India's vast market, from luxury goods maker LVMH to aerospace giant EADS, which owns plane manufacturer Airbus.

    Hollande will be lobbying hard for the $12bn deal that France's Dassault Aviation hopes to clinch, which would sell 126 Rafale fighter jets to India. The same jets have been deployed during France's offensive in Mali; they are nuclear-capable, and can be adapted to land on aircraft carriers.

    India last year chose the French firm for exclusive negotiations to equip its air force with new fighters, and while New Delhi says the discussions are "proceeding smoothly," it has already said the contract would not be signed during Hollande's visit as it was being fine-tuned.

    Another major project for discussion is a contract for Areva to build a 9,900-megawatt nuclear power plant in the western coastal state of Maharashtra.

    The $9.3bn framework agreement was signed during a visit to India in 2010 by Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

    But the project has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists concerned about seismic activity in the area and fears about the safety of nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

    India said this week it was "fully committed" to the French-assisted Jaitapur nuclear plant, but conceded there were "issues pertaining to cost".



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