FRANCE, INDIA AND PAKISTAN : CONSTRASTING DYNAMICS IN BILATERAL TIES
Selection of articles (summary below) :
Events unfolding in South Asia since last week are symbolic of the spectacularly constrasting dynamics in India and Pakistan when it comes to their respective relations with France.
On April 13, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian landed in New Delhi for a 3-days state visit which aimed at reinforcing bilateral cooperation, economic ties and the 1998 strategic partnership on defense, space and energy. This visit also officialized, France’s entrance to the “Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative” proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019, as Olivier Guillard reminds us in his article for French website Asialyst. Emmanuel Macron repeatedly said that he wanted France to be India’s main gateway to the EU. On the other hand, France insists that the Indo-Pacific region is a “priority” and as such, India is a priviledged partner. Along with its other Quad partners, Delhi joined a French-led naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal on April 5th.
“I look forward to the La Pérouse joint exercise, during which two French Navy ships will be joined by ships from India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. for a concrete demonstration of multilateralism at sea and our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific” said French Ambassador to New Delhi Emmanuel Lenain, in anticipation. (as reported by The Hindu) In addition, France and India will take part to another joint naval exercice along with the United Arab Emirates from April 25 to April 28.
Dassault’s Rafales are perhaps one of the best symbols of Franco-Indian defense ties. The fifth batch of theses fighters jets arrived in India from France yesterday, amid controversy surrounding corruption allegations made by French online investigation journal Mediapart. The media claims that the French Anti-Corruption agency had burried suspicions of corruption regarding the purchase of 36 Rafale jets in the name of national interests. Dassault claimed that neither they, nor the involved governments committed any infractions regarding the deal and that it was “transparent”. While in France, these new allegations did not really made the headlines of other medias, in India meanwhile, it added fuel to the ongoing Rafale deal political controversy.
The depths of Franco-Indian ties were also highlighted by the Covid crisis, when the French authorities were hesitant to cancel flights from India, in the wake of a dramatic surge (partly fueled by a worrisome new double-mutant variant) due to “diplomatic and economic concerns” (before finally suggesting yesterday that it would cancel the flights, according to sources close to the French Prime Minister). When we observe Paris’ strenghtened ties with Delhi, the degradation of its relationship with Islamabad appears all the more spectacular.
Pakistan is currently in the middle of a serious political crisis, following violent anti-France protests by the radical far-right islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) which resulted in the death of at least two policemen and a ban on the outfit. On April 11th, renewing the demands made by its former leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi (who died at the end of last year), his son and successor Saad gave an ultimatum to Imran Khan PTI government : if the French Ambassador is not expelled from the country and diplomatic relations severed by April 20th, he would call on nationwide protests and strikes. His arrest under terrorism charges the following day only precipitated the protests. In the wake of this tense climate, France recently urged its citizens to temporarly leave the country and repatried 15 of its diplomats, citing security concerns. Under pressure, Prime Minister Imran Khan decided on April 20th to listen to the TLP’s demands (while maintening the ban), letting the Parliament debate whether or not the French Ambassador should be expelled. Meanwhile PM Khan asked western countries to outlaw “hate speeches” against Muslims and the Prophet.
This situation represents the culmination of a crisis that started in October 2020, following the gruesome murder of a teacher in the suburbs of Paris after he’d shown Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in class. After the satirical journal’s subsequent decision to republish the caricatures and Emmanuel Macron’s controversial statement that “Islam is a religion that is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, PM Imran Khan, like other heads of states, accused the French President of fostering Islamophobia and insulting the beliefs of millions of Muslims. The TLP, notorious for its hard-line stance on blasphemy, called for a boycott of French products and goods and asked the PTI government to expell the Ambassador and sever diplomatic ties. This demand put Imran Khan in a difficult position, as this would severely damage the country’s economy, dependant on European imports and exports.
Moreover, as French newspaper Le Figaro states, France provides maintenance for Pakistani submarines and Mirage fighter jets. It would also compromise the new Pakistani pivot from “Geopolitics” to “Geoconomics”, a focus on economic development. Indeed, Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) want to expend their options to be less dependant on the US and China on an economic and military level but also counterbalance France’s strategic partnership with India. A Pakistani diplomat anonymously confessed to Le Figaro that “Pakistan wants to normalize its ties with France” and that “the government is really concerned about the degradation of Pakistan’s international image due to the TLP’s actions.”
Still according to Le Figaro, the fact that Paris urges its citizens to leave the country also implies that it loses patience and that it does not trust the government to protect its citizens, given its ambivalence regarding the TLP over the past months and years (when for exemple, Khadim Rizvi’s funeral was held in a national monument and that the PM offered his condolences). But for now, no serious incident involving French nationals or interests were reported and the radical outfit faces hostility and disapproval from many Pakistani citizens. While the TLP already represents a security threat in the eyes of the government and the army, the Pakistani Talibans had pledged their support for the movement and promised to “avenge any martyr”.