Sunday, December 25, 2011

There are many things to do in the world today, particularly in a country like India

An Interview with Mr Nicolas Forissier, Member of the French Parliament and President of the French Parliamentary Group for Friendship with India.

CA: Mr. Deputy: Could you first tell us what is the purpose of a Friendship Group, like the Indo-French Group in the National Assembly (Lower House of the French Parliament)? Do you have a counterpart in the Lok Sabha?

NF: Yes, we do.
In France, it is an old institution. The idea is to have formal relations between parliamentarians of different countries. Exchanges can be strictly on the parliament issues, like the functioning of our respective Houses, but it can also help develop other links and deeper relations between two countries.
From this point of view, the Friendship Groups have an important role to play. They can’t obviously take the place of the government to government relations, but it can be an outside help to understand each other. In our case for example, we know better what our Indian friends are expecting from us and can understand better their vision; it is also useful to pass messages on our own positions. French companies find it particularly valuable to have such a Group which is able to explain, from another angle, the difficulties that they may be facing or even their hopes.

With the Speaker of the Lok Sabha
That way, our talks are informal, we don’t sign MoUs or agreements; but, with our parliamentarian concerns, we are able to explain the French position.
I am in favour of parliamentarian diplomacy. It does not take the place of the Ambassador, but it is an add-on. We can pass messages.
It is a public relation exercise by elected representatives and as we are representing the people of France, we have a very strong legitimacy.
We also come to listen and to understand what is happening in India.
In France, we always had a Friendship Group in the Parliament; its creation is more recent in the Lok Sabha. But now, there is a group and Mr. Yashwant Sinha is the President. We met him in Delhi and we have decided to intensify our relations.
It is the Group’s first official visit to India since 1998. I was very keen that our Parliament organizes such a visit. Moreover, I have noticed that since 5 years the relations between France and India have really intensified.
I came for the first time in India as the Minister of State for Agriculture; I had earlier met Mr. Subhod Kant Sahay, my counterpart in Paris. He had said that India was keen to collaborate with France.
Mr Sahay told me: “You have a great expertise in agro-food technology; you are a gastronomical model, while in India we need expertise in cold-storage technology, in food preservation, in food-processing also. We have immense problems in this field. The consumption pattern of the people in India is changing; we need to modernize the food chain. France, with its expertise can help us.”
When he asked me: “What can be done?”, I immediately answered: “I will come to India”. I came a month later. It was in 2005.
I came again as inter-parliament delegate for the agro-food industries. This time, it is my 12th visit in 6 years.
I was keen that the Friendship Group could officially visit India. For me, it symbolizes the intensification of the relations between India and France.
All my Indian interlocutors concur with this: the relations between our two countries are excellent, we agree on most of the subjects. In fact, when we meet, it is more to see how to further move forward.
From my side, whenever I have the occasion, I always push French companies to come and work in India; even if it is not easy.
CA: I was told that there are very few articles on India in France, particularly on Indian politics. Would you like to comment? 

NF: France, till recently, was not sufficiently conscious of the importance of India; of what is happening here; of her wisdom too. I think that things are changing. I was telling you that I have seen a sea of changes during the last 5 years or so. It is not by chance, it is because some political personalities have worked for this. I am thinking first of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who renewed the strategic partnership; they have given a new kick-off to the relations. I have seen it in my own modest experience. It is not the same rhythm as before, it is faster and French companies are more and more interested by India. 
I always tell these companies: “You should go, but you should be persistent, you should take the time to understand the country, its aspirations. You should understand the needs of the Indian people; answer their questions and finally you should build win-win partnerships.”
Our French delegation visited India this year; I have now officially invited our Indian counterparts to come to Paris next year. The idea is to have regular exchange. I told the President of the French Assembly that it was unthinkable that a French delegation should not visit India, at least one in a parliamentary term [five years]. It is the minimum we can do for a country like India. Through this relation with the Lok Sabha, many networks come into place; it is for me absolutely necessary. We are delighted to have had these contacts at the highest level; our report to the Parliament will be clear on this point.
About the French Press, there was still insufficient comprehension of what is happening in India and the weight of India in the world. There are articles, but not enough, and not as many as on China because everyone has focused on China for the last decade. It is changing. Indian culture fascinates the French people. We have so many Indian exhibitions and performances. And now the interest slowly shifts from culture to economy and politics.

CA: What about the strategic aspect?

NF: France will have to quickly start looking at what is happening in India. It is essential. There is an evolution in this sense in France, but honestly more is done in the economic field for the time being.

CA: Though there is a strong strategic partnership at the government level, today most think-tanks in France are more interested by China?

NF: It is true. Chine is today a major actor; we have seen it again since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008. China can’t be ignored because it the factory of the world and it has cash-flow surplus, but it is not a reason for India to be absent. In the past, the nature of our conception of India has been romantic and cultural. But one realizes now, that India is an economic power with responses to today’s world. It is also a market, for example in the agro-food sector.
Our look on India is changing very fast, in particular thanks to the strategic partnership. President Sarkozy has often very strong intuitions, I know him well and from the start of his mandate, he had the intuition that the relations with India had to be intensified. It is what is happening.
Our role as the Friendship Group is to accompany this movement, and to pass the message and develop new networks between France and India.
Today our group is one of the two largest in the French Parliament (more than 120 MPs are part of it). It is larger than the Group for Friendship with the US.

CA: What are your impressions after your visit to Renault and Michelin factories in Chennai?

NF: In both cases, it is extremely large investments. Michelin will be the largest Michelin factory in the world. This morning, we have visited Renault-Nissan factory. It is huge and impressive; it will produce 5 different models of cars. It means that between 4 and 8 lakhs of cars will be produced before 2015.
We also met the Michelin management. Both projects are very significant in terms of investment. It is symbolic of the will of French industry to invest in India. Today, we don’t satisfy ourselves by just exporting to India.
We are in a global market and India is one of the leaders.
Chennai and South India which were relatively less known by the French authorities and the French industry have now got a new dimension.
More and more French companies are coming to Chennai (I hope that they will also come to Pondicherry soon). I find this interesting.

CA: Could you tell us your opinion on the debate raging in India on FDI in the food supply chain? You earlier mentioned that your Indian counterpart had told you that France could help India in this field.

NF: From an economic perspective, I am sure that common sense will prevail, but I have no judgment to put on Indian public debate.
Personally, I believe that one should put in place safeguards to protect small retail businesses. As the Mayor of a small town in France, I always fight to defend the small retailers in my city.
Apart from that, the modernization and the improvement of the distribution system, can only be positive for the stabilization of prices and for creating new jobs. I am not enough knowledgeable about the Indian scenario, but what I could understand from the Indian press, there is more advantage than inconvenience (in a large distribution system).
But things have to take their own time, they have to ripen. I am conscious that the small shops are traditionally important in Indian culture; it is not only an economical issue, it is also a cultural one. I am not surprised that there is a debate on the issue in India. One has to take care to not create an imbalance (small retailers are part of the Indian culture), I believe that the implantation of large distribution system will come to India in a reasonable amount of time.

CA: Will the farmers benefit from it?

NF: If you have a very organized distribution system, it brings stability to the farmers. But they need to be themselves organized (I once visited Amul [in Gujarat] and was very impressed by what has been done in India, a remarkable organization!). When I speak of safeguards, it means that the producers, the farmers should also be organized. They should not be millions to negotiate with large wholesale dealers. The producers should also have a global vision. At the end, you should get an improvement in your quality of life; an improvement in revenue and in stability of the revenue too.
At the same time, one should preserve small retailers. There is a delicate balance to find. It is normal that India has a debate, especially when you have a culture of fresh-cooking and small establishments in your street where you get the food from.
It is true that there is a mutation in the Indian society and the middle class aspires today for a way of life comparable with ours. Just look at the malls: so many shops with the Indian and foreign brands; there is a need for this type of commerce.
For me, what is important in this debate is to keep what makes the charm and the diversity of the Indian society (it is easier to say, than do!). I personally prefer to do my shopping in small retail shops and I am sure that millions of Indians feel the same. There is a subtle debate and hopefully it will ripen.
Today there are perhaps political considerations in the debate, but there is more behind: a true debate.

CA: Today, there is a strong debate on a Russian nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. Can this influence the setting up of two French Areva plants in Jaitapur in Maharashtra?

NF: I am not sufficiently informed on this subject. Everywhere in the world there is a debate on the nuclear. But often it is the same people who complain against the nuclear who come and see me in my city to grumble about a power cut. One should know what one wants. In this debate, I can tell you that the French offer (Areva) is the safest in the world and Areva’s search for security is permanent. Innovation is permanent. Security is an absolute priority in France. Our 58 reactors have recently been fully checked and they are in a perfect state. French Nuclear technology is the leader in the world, including in the field of security and reprocessing. It is clear that India needs power to continue its considerable development.
When we met with the Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu or the [Lt.] Governor of Pondicherry, their main topic was ‘power’, energy. In a short term, Tamil Nadu needs 8,000 to 10,000 Mws extra, not in 20 years, immediately.
They are working on solutions.
France can offer an energy ‘mix’. One is the nuclear and we are working with the Central Government (let us not forget that France pushed very hard in Vienna for India to have an exemption for the civilian use of nuclear energy from the IAEA). The French offer should be reassuring for India, because it is the ‘top’ and Areva wants to stay on the ‘top’.
About the nuclear energy, citizens of France are asking the same questions than any citizens in the world.
One has to be very demanding for security matters, but if one wants to have sufficient clean energy, the nuclear has to be part of the ‘mix’. We also have other offers, particular in the domain of solar and wind energies which have tremendously evolved during the last few years.
We are not as advanced on the biomass, but we should soon make up this lateness. We are aware that we need to have 22% or 25% of renewable energy in 2025. It is certainly something which interests our Indian friends; it came up in discussions wherever we went, Delhi, Bangalore or Chennai.

CA: A few words on the Rafale?

NF: I believe that it is a remarkable fighter plane. It is a multi-purpose plane which can answers all sorts of needs. We have worked with the Indian authorities in the past. We have also signed an agreement for the modernization of the Mirage 2000. In that case, I personally spoke to the President of the Republic and passed the message that the French offer should be competitive, because I knew that the Indian Air Force was attached to its Mirage. The deal for 126 Rafales would definitely be important for the French economy.

CA: Pondicherry has been a French colony till 1954. Which role do you see for Pondicherry in Indo-French relations today?

NF: For obvious historical reasons, Pondicherry has a special place in the heart of the French. Further, a large number of French nationals live there and Pondicherry receives many French visitors. The French Lyçée, the Alliance Française and the Consulate General are important elements in the Indo-French relation.
It is why I made sure that we would spend at least 2 days of our heavy-scheduled Indian visit in Pondicherry. Now, we have to improve our presence in Pondicherry, facilities have to be improved, I am particularly thinking of the French Lyçée, which is one of the best in France as far as the results are concerned. It is an asset and it should be supported.
We have also some expertise in the field of urbanism (we discussed it with the [Lt] Governor) and the Chief Secretary). Valorization of the architectural heritage is important. Pondicherry has an exceptional heritage, it has to be restored. And for the economy, there is the possibility of creation of new jobs in the tourism sector. With its historical links, France can help; let us also not forget that France is the first tourist destination in the world. France has a knowhow and can help. Also in the field of sustainable town-planning, we have some of the best world experts, many French companies and architects are working in this field. The [Lt.] Governor asked our help in energy, education (student exchanges), sustainable town-planning (heritage preservation).
To conclude, all these elements that I just mentioned were something I was feeling before coming: there is a tremendous improvement in the bilateral relations. My colleagues have the same feelings. We want to carry this message to the French government and the French companies. We want France to be more and more involved. The formidable evolution of the Indo-French relations should not be ephemeral, but sustainable in the spirit of a win-win partnership.
I always tell my children: “You have a difficult world in front of you, but it is an exciting world. There are difficult challenges, like the challenge of sustainable development, urbanization, environment or climatic change and one which is even more crucial: food-security. Don’t cry about your fate, there are so many things to do in the world today and particularly in a country like India.”
It is true that the 2008 economic crisis has complicated things. It is not easy. We should nevertheless pursue these objectives.

CA: Thank you, Mr. Deputy

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