NEW DELHI, Feb. 15 (UPI)
French President Francois Hollande has met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a special look at defense relations on the agenda.
Underscoring the importance of the visit, Hollande was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian along with the chief executive officers of more than 60 leading French firms.
A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the trip was aimed at building on the "strategic Indo-French partnership launched 15 years ago."
Hollande said that, after his meeting with Singh, he was certain that India was carefully considering all options for major defense purchases.
Hollande added that the Indian government was committed to considering all foreign applications for big-ticket items in the India's Ministry of Defense pipeline and that an element of his visit was to highlight French companies interested in the Indian market.
Singh averred, "The discussion on the (contract) is progressing well," Singh said, adding that "some progress has been achieved."
The majority of India's international contracts are in the defense sector, which has been dogged by allegations of bribery and corruption. In addressing corruption allegations in a civil nuclear contract for France's bid for participating in the construction of India's Jaitapur nuclear power plant, Hollande promised that France's transactions with India would be fully transparent.
In visiting the South Asian economic powerhouse, Hollande is making his first visit to an emerging economy, with diplomatic sources emphasizing that Paris chose India over Brazil, the Russia Federation and South Africa.
Singh and Hollande stated that their mutual interest was cooperation in high technology programs, including bilateral research and development and transfer of technology, one of India's highest priorities.
Hollande noted that joint venture projects already online included the Indian navy's indigenously built Scorpene submarine and the upgrading of the Indian air force's French-built Mirage 2000 with negotiations progressing. He also said discussions continue to finalize the joint French-Indian Short Range Surface to Air Missile air defense project.
Hollande's top defense priority is to secure the Indian air force purchase of 126 Rafale fighters from French arms manufacturer Dassault, a potential deal worth $12 billion. India chose the firm in 2012 but says that the contract won't be signed until midyear.
Franco-Indian trade levels remain modest, in 2012 worth $10 billion and France imports more than it sells to India.
Singh and Hollande, besides noting the progress on bilateral cooperation on the Scorpene submarine, Mirage 2000 and SRSAM joint ventures, reiterated their ongoing interest in negotiations on the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft program.
New Delhi diplomatic sources speaking not for attribution said that given France's inside track in New Delhi, Rafael's closest competitor, the four-nation Eurofighter consortium, had essentially abandoned its bid for India's new fighter tender, as had Germany, previously the leading country for the Indian air force combat fighter contract.