New Delhi: Refusing to be directly drawn in to the swirling controversy triggered by his predecessor’s comments about the manner in which Reliance Defence became part of the 2015 deal to sell 36 Rafale aircraft to India, French President Emmanuel Macron has said he was not in power when the matter was discussed.
Macron’s is the third official statement from France since the charge of cronyism against Prime Minister Narendra Modi surfaced – and arguably the most authoritative – to avoid contradicting Hollande’s claims that the involvement of Reliance as an offset partner for Dassault Aviation was suggested by the Indian government.
Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session on Tuesday, Macron was asked if the Indian government had at any point told France or Dassault – the French aerospace company which manufactures the Rafale – that they had to accept Reliance as the Indian partner for the deal.
“I will be very clear. It was a government-to-government discussion and I just want to refer to what Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi very clearly said a few days ago,” Macron told reporters, without elaborating.
“I don’t have any other comment. I was not in charge at that time and I know that we have very clear rules,” he said.
Macron, who assumed the presidency in May 2017 emphasised that “this contract is part of a broader framework [between France and India] which is military and defence”.
“This one is very important to me because this is a strategic coalition and not just an industrial relation. That is my point. I just want to refer to what PM Modi said on this situation,” he said.
Since Prime Minister Modi has said nothing about the deal since the controversy began, it is not clear what point Macron was trying to make.
While his comments at the UN were the French president’s first remarks on the issue, his refusal to contradict Hollande’s claim despite getting (an anticipated) opportunity to do so mirrors other statements issued by his government.
On the day Mediapart published its explosive interview with Hollande, the French foreign ministry issued a bland statement saying the French government had played no role in the choice of Indian partner. And on Monday, the junior foreign minister of France, when asked about Hollande’s remarks, had merely said the former president had not helped France.
India formally signed an inter-governmental agreement with France in September 2016 for procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of around Rs 58,000 crore, nearly one-and-half years after Prime Minister Modi announced the decision during a visit to Paris on April 10, 2015. The delivery of the jets is scheduled to begin from September 2019.
Hollande had said that the Indian government proposed Reliance Defence as the partner for the French aerospace giant and France did not have a choice.
His comments to ‘Mediapart‘, a leading French website, triggered sharp reactions from opposition parties, which have been accusing the government of massive irregularities in the deal and of helping Reliance Defence Limited benefit, despite the company not having any experience in the aerospace sector.
The Congress party recently raised several questions about the deal including the prince, and accused the government of compromising national interest and security while promoting “crony capitalism” and causing a loss to the exchequer.
The Mediapart report quoted Hollande as saying, “It was the Indian government that proposed this service group, and Dassault which negotiated with Ambani. We had no choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us.”
In a statement to the story, Dassault Aviation said the contract for supply of 36 Rafale jets is a government-to-government agreement, adding “It provides for a separate contract in which Dassault Aviation commits to make compensation investments (offsets) in India worth 50 per cent of the value of the purchase.”
The company also said its partnership with Reliance has led to the creation of the Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd (DRAL) joint-venture in February 2017.
With inputs from PTI in New York