French president heads to India for Republic Day visit

23rd January 2016, Comments 0 comments

French President Francois Hollande arrives in India on Sunday hoping to seal a drawn-out defence deal between the two countries as well as hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on global security.

Hollande will be chief guest at India's Republic Day parade on Tuesday as part of his three-day visit, after accepting an invitation that is viewed as one of the biggest honours New Delhi can bestow on a foreign leader.

The invitation is a sign of deepening diplomatic and business ties between the two countries, and comes after US President Barack Obama was given the honour at last year's parade.

Hollande will begin his second official visit to India with a trip later Sunday to the northern city of Chandigarh, which was designed by pioneering French architect Le Corbusier more than 60 years ago.

Hollande will meet Modi for a tour of Chandigarh's renowned rock garden, with its sculptures made out of rubble from the city's construction.

The French leader, travelling with a large business delegation, will also address, along with Modi, a forum of Indian CEOs in the evening.

Security was tight ahead of Hollande's arrival, with armed police and paramilitary forces patrolling the streets of Chandigarh, which lies 250 kilometres (150 miles) north of Delhi.

When the two leaders sit down to talk business on Monday in the capital, focus is expected to be on finalising a years-long multi-billion dollar deal to buy 36 French fighter jets.

Modi announced in Paris last year that New Delhi had agreed to buy 36 Rafales jets, as India rapidly modernises its Soviet-era military in part to keep up with neighbouring rivals Pakistan and China.

But days before Hollande was due to arrive, French ambassador Francois Richier said last-minute talks were still going on, suggesting that a final agreement may not be struck this week.

"Discussions are taking place at present, I cannot say what will be the outcome, I am hopeful but hopeful does not mean certitude," Richier told reporters on Friday.

The two leaders stepped into the long-delayed deal last year, after torturous negotiations over a much-larger agreement first signed with France's Dassault Aviation in 2012 broke down.

An ongoing sticking point has been Delhi's standard requirement that arms makers invest a percentage of the value of any major deal in India, known as the offset clause.

The leaders are also expected to announce a roadmap for building six French nuclear reactors in western Maharashtra state, more than five years after a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement was signed, according to the Times of India newspaper.

The pair will lay a foundation stone at the new headquarters of the International Solar Alliance, a 121-nation group launched by Modi at the Paris COP21 conference in November, to expand affordable solar power.

- Focus on security -

Security will be high on the agenda after deadly Islamist attacks in Paris in November that evoked memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which left 166 people dead, and a deadly assault earlier this month on India's Pathankok air base.

"There will be a focus on terrorism in view of the situation we are at present, the state of emergency, military operations in Syria, Iraq and in Africa," Richier said.

Hollande said last week that a coalition waging a bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq would "accelerate" air strikes.

India launched a nationwide security crackdown in the lead up to Republic Day celebrations, arresting a string of suspected Islamic militants during raids in four states.

Hollande and Modi are expected to sit side by side to watch Tuesday's pomp-filled spectacle of military might -- that includes columns of soldiers and Soviet-era tanks -- along Delhi's central Rajpath avenue.

The parade is the highlight of annual celebrations of the birth of modern India.

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© 2016 AFP

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