Sarkozy pushes nuclear deals in India
French President Nicolas Sarkozy began a four-day trip to India on Saturday, pitching for new nuclear energy contracts while stressing his hosts' increased power in world affairs.
Sarkozy, accompanied by his wife Carla Bruni, is the latest in a long line of world leaders beating a path to India, the world's second-fastest growing major economy.
His visit comes after those by British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama in recent months, and will be followed in swift succession by China's Premier Wen Jiabao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Sarkozy, accompanied by a bevy of ministers and a large delegation of business leaders, will lobby for multibillion-dollar contracts for fighter jets and nuclear technology, an industry in which France has a leading position.
"We all know how critical it is for India to ensure its energy security," Sarkozy said in a speech at the Indian Space Research Organisation in the southern Indian technology and IT hub Bangalore.
Stressing that he welcomed a US-led deal in 2008 to free up trade in nuclear technology with India, Sarkozy said France was "proud" to be accompanying the country in its quest for greater atomic power.
India's environment ministry last weekend gave clearance for a project worth an estimated one trillion rupees (22 billion dollars) which will see French state nuclear company Areva supply six third-generation pressurised water reactors.
Like Cameron and Obama before him, Sarkozy emphasised India's increased influence in the world, which analysts say stems from its fast-growing economy and its resistance to the global financial crisis.
Western democracies are also seen as embracing India as a natural ally to counterbalance the influence in Asia of authoritarian China.
"India is probably far greater and stronger than even it probably realises," Sarkozy said, adding that he expected the rupee to emerge one day as a world currency.
Sarkozy reiterated France's support for India to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which was also backed by Obama during his trip to New Delhi last month.
He also said he welcomed cooperation in space that will lead the two countries to jointly launch satellites to monitor the climate and oceans next year, and expressed a desire for more Indians to study in French universities.
The president, who faces low approval ratings at home, heads a high-powered delegation of seven ministers and around 60 chief executives, including the heads of aircraft-makers Dassault Aviation and EADS, and Areva.
Dassault is hoping to pick up a 1.2-billion dollar contract to revamp 56 Mirage-2000 aircraft that France sold India nearly two decades ago, though Indian officials have said no defence deals will be signed during the visit.
India's ambitious military spending plans, spread across all three wings of its armed forces, are a source of intense competition among foreign arms manufacturers.
Dassault and EADS are both in the running, together with US and Swedish rivals, for an 11-billion-dollar tender by the Indian Air Force to purchase 126 warplanes.
Sarkozy and Bruni, who wore a classic peach-coloured combination as she stepped off the presidential plane in Bangalore, will visit the Taj Mahal on Sunday.
Sarkozy's visit to India is his first to a G20 state since France took the presidency of the group of developed and major developing economic powers.
During talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday in New Delhi, he is expected to push his plans for overhauling the global monetary system and combating commodity price volatility.
The two leaders are also expected to focus their discussions on Afghanistan and counter-terrorism.
"We need to beat terrorism and insurgencies, notably in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, major sources of instability," Sarkozy said on Saturday.
He last visited India in 2008, just before he married Bruni, the supermodel-turned-pop singer who is now a goodwill ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
On Tuesday, the president travels to India's commercial capital Mumbai, where he will pay his respects to the victims of the 2008 militant attacks on the city that claimed 166 lives.
© 2010 AFP