Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France in April 2015 highlighted New Delhi’s burgeoning ties with Paris and underlined India’s attempts to diversify its defence purchases. It also re-emphasised the congruence that has existed between the two countries during most of the Cold War.

France has gradually emerged as a formidable technology supplier to India in all three strategic realms: defence, space and nuclear energy. India’s vast market and its appetite for advanced strategic technology make it rather attractive to France.

The dynamic of Indo-French relations demonstrates a congruence that is characteristic of middle powers or countries that are “considerably stronger than most small nations but significantly weaker than the great powers”. The history of Indo-French relations demonstrates that their proximity is characteristic of middle powers’ congruence, which has thrived to a large extent on their common opposition to US non-proliferation efforts.

How it began

India’s quest for nuclear technology was met early on by the French at a time when the British and the Americans continued to pursue wartime information censorship on atomic energy. Frédéric Joliot-Curie, then chairman of the French atomic energy commission (CEA), visited India in January 1950 and made offers for technical cooperation that were not just extraordinary but also unprecedented. It initiated negotiations for the first bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement outside the Manhattan Project. At a special meeting of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) held in New Delhi on January 17, 1950, Joliot-Curie offered to share technical information on the purification of uranium, graphite reprocessing, and designs of a low power reactor in exchange for India’s export to France of thorium, beryllium, and uranium, among others.

Such an offer was unthinkable at a time when the US was keen on maintaining high censorship and control over nuclear technology and information while the UK and Canada adhered to a similar approach.

The French offer to India eventually materialised in 1951, when the two countries signed the bilateral agreement for the research and construction of beryllium-moderated reactors.

The agreement also made the AEC one of the first foreign atomic energy bodies with which the CEA collaborated on such a grand scale. Interestingly, during the same period, Paris and New Delhi disputed over the fate of French colonial possessions in the Indian subcontinent.

However, close cooperation between Indian and French atomic energy commissions and their desire for nuclear technology and materials ensured that the bilateral territorial dispute did not affect the negotiations on atomic energy.

Better diplomatic ties

The 1960s were characterised by further nuclear proximity, this time also aided by close diplomatic relations, of which the March 1966 meeting between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Charles de Gaulle bore evidence. In this meeting at the Elysée, Gandhi and de Gaulle seemed to agree on almost all key issues of international politics at the time, including the ongoing negotiations for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the US war in Vietnam, and the role of Communist China. When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was opened for signature in 1968, neither France nor India signed it on grounds that the treaty was discriminatory.

Between 1966 and 1969, the AEC and the CEA negotiated on breeder reactors — a plutonium-fuelled, plutonium-breeding reactor technology that the French were leading in — that led to New Delhi acquiring designs for two such French reactors and the opportunity to train Indian personnel in France. The agreement allowed India to have a civilian-use justification for the plutonium acquired from the Canadian-supplied Cirus reactor that it was reprocessing in Trombay.

In May 1974, India’s first nuclear test that New Delhi called a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, generated hostile reactions from Canada, Australia, Japan, surprise from the US, and silence from the Soviet Union. The CEA sent a telegram to the AEC congratulating the latter for the “scientific feat”, thus making France the only western country that expressed encouragement. André Giraud, then general administrator of the CEA, defended the CEA’s decision to send the congratulatory telegram.

The Elysée, headed by newly elected French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, however, did not share the euphoria of the CEA. He wanted to draw France closer to US-led nonproliferation efforts albeit not without domestic political opposition by the Gaullist faction led by Jacques Chirac. As a result, the French foreign ministry renegotiated contracts with India to ensure that French-supplied nuclear materials and technology were not used in a future nuclear explosion.

After the 1974 test

The 1974 test proved costly for India’s nuclear programme. Not only did Canada withdraw all nuclear assistance by 1976, the US was compelled to not supply fuel to US-supplied reactors in Tarapur unless India accepted full-scope IAEA safeguards. In 1983, the French replaced the Americans as the fuel supplier to the Tarapur reactors.

In January 1998, President Jacques Chirac visited India with a high-level delegation. Following the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998, Chirac even publicly supported New Delhi and opposed US sanctions.

In September 2008, soon after the India-specific waiver was granted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to engage in civil nuclear trade, France was the first country to sign a civil nuclear agreement with India.

Later on, when the NSG declared that it would not supply enrichment and reprocessing technology to countries that are non-signatories to the NPT, France declared that this would not affect its bilateral nuclear cooperation with India. Despite recent reassurances that New Delhi and Washington are reaching agreement on nuclear liability, the potential for US companies like Westinghouse and General Electric to invest in India’s nuclear energy market continues to be uncertain.

The middle powers’ congruence between New Delhi and Paris expanded with French quest for nuclear technology partners outside Europe, especially for technology that had not already been proved to be economically viable. Since the bulk of Indo-French nuclear cooperation involved untested technologies of the time, like beryllium and breeder reactors, their bilateral cooperation facilitated learning opportunities for India through joint research.

Moreover, this allowed New Delhi to participate in cooperation with Paris as an “almost equal”. Anxieties of “neocolonial exploitation” rarely configured. India thus found in France an empathetic and supportive partner. Fortunately, it still continues to do so.

The writer is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Harvard University’, and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.