Sarkozy to push defence, nuclear deals in India

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due in India Saturday, the latest in a line of global leaders beating a trade-focused path to the door of the world's second fastest growing economy.

Sarkozy, who will lobby on behalf of French companies chasing multi-billion-dollar contracts for fighter jets and nuclear technology, will be accompanied on the four-day trip by his pop star wife Carla Bruni.

His visit comes a month after US President Barack Obama travelled to India and will be followed in swift succession by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Sarkozy is leading a high-powered delegation of seven ministers and around 60 chief executives, including the heads of aircraft-makers Dassault Aviation and EADS, and the state-controlled nuclear group Areva.

The size and prestige of the delegation shows France's "recognition" of India's position as "the world's second growth engine" after China, an Elysee aide said. "In this very competitive environment, we have a special place in India," he added.

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.

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.

According to global consultancy firm KPMG, India is about to embark on "one of the largest procurement cycles in the world," with an expected 112 billion dollars in defence acquisitions by 2016.

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's trip also carries a wider brief as his first visit 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, he is expected to push his plans for overhauling the global monetary system and regulating commodities markets.

Sarkozy 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.

The couple plan to squeeze in a private visit Sunday to the Taj Mahal, the 17th century "monument to love" built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his queen Mumtaz Mahal.

On the official level, Sarkozy will be accompanied by Defence Minister Alain Juppe, Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and Economy Minister Christine Lagarde.

Indian officials said no contracts would be signed during the visit but there are hopes of progress in talks for Areva to build two nuclear reactors in western India.

Sarkozy's trip kicks off Saturday with a visit to Indian Space Research Organisation in the southern city of Bangalore, India's high-tech capital.

The symbolism of starting the trip there intends to "pay homage to the India of the 21st century," a Sarkozy aide said.

The French leader will on Monday meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil in New Delhi.

The French first lady plans to visit a foundation for children suffering from AIDS and will also tour a hospital in the capital.

Bruni, who lost her brother Virginio to AIDS in 2006, became an ambassador for the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS in 2008.

On Tuesday, Sarkozy will travel 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

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