He's young, debonair, articulate and chose India for his first posting as an ambassador because "it's a fascinating country." In a exclusive, wide ranging interview to HuffPost, Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler touched upon booming French trade investments in India approaching one billion euros a year, a more liberal visa policy for students and professionals, the Jaitapur nuclear plant project, cooperation in luxury goods, the transformational Rafale defence agreement and cooperation on counter-terrorism. Here are excerpts from the interview.
On bilateral ties
India and France have a longstanding relationship of trust. Our strategic partnership dates back to 1998, allowing us to develop a strong cooperation on the most sensitive issues such as defence, energy, space and security. These include the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft by India last September, the planned construction of six nuclear reactors at Jaitapur, an enhanced cooperation on counter-terrorism, as well as a rapidly-growing dialogue on maritime security in the Indian Ocean, with the signing of a white shipping agreement last January
Our target is an intake of 10,000 Indian students by 2020 and we have developed a very attractive visa policy.
Our economic relations are flourishing. French companies employ over 300,000 skilled workers, and have fully incorporated the "Make in India" policy to produce and innovate in India. One of my priorities is to further enhance people-to-people contacts through student mobility, tourism, culture, art, fashion... This year in November, we will launch the third edition of our French festival in India, Bonjour India, spread over three months across the country.
Incentives to attract Indian talent
Attracting more Indian talent and businesses to France is an absolute priority. France ranks among the top destinations for students, offering world-class education opportunities at low costs. Our target is an intake of 10,000 Indian students by 2020 and we have developed a very attractive visa policy. Indian students can stay for up to two years after graduation to acquire work experience. Once they get a job, they are granted a residence permit. Indian alumni who hold a degree at the Master's or higher level from a French higher education institution are being granted tourist or business visas with a five-year validity period. Finally, the "Talent Passport", a newly created long-term residence permit (four years) is designed for highly skilled foreigners (researchers, scientists, artists) wishing to settle in France.
On trade ties
French companies have a very significant and diversified presence through more 1000 entities spread across the country. And French companies are investing massively in India: the French investment stock is set to grow at over 1 billion euros annually over the years to come. This clearly shows how much faith French companies repose in India's future.
French investment stock [in India] is set to grow at over 1 billion euros annually over the years to come.
The reforms undertaken by Prime Minister Modi to facilitate FDI—for instance, with the GST—are seen as a positive step that will help catalyse investment inflows. Furthermore, the Indian government has shown its resolve to prioritise economic and social development, and guarantee a climate conducive to economic growth. Prime Minister Modi has unambiguously voiced his thoughts on this matter on several occasions.
Alain Vidalies, the French Minister of State for Transport, Marine Affairs and Fisheries, visited India from 11th to 13th April, 2017, to strengthen cooperation and offer wide-ranging French expertise in this domain. He had fruitful meetings with his counterparts in railways, civil aviation and urban development. On railways in particular, the two ministers announced ambitious projects on high-speed and semi-high-speed trains, maintenance, renovation of stations, safety and security.
The luxury sector
France and India share a common culture, knowledge and expertise when it comes to the luxury sector, which, in India, reached more than 18 billion euros in 2016, and is booming. Major French luxury brands are already present in India, with flagship stores in iconic buildings and malls of major cities of the country.
The willingness to develop more India-made luxury brands will create even more synergies with global luxury brands, especially French ones.
While experiencing some regulatory and fiscal challenges in entering the Indian market, French luxury companies have applauded as a very positive move the recent changes in FDI regulations for the luxury retail sector to facilitate new investments. There is room for deeper presence as the demand for luxury products from Indian consumers is growing. Finally, the willingness to develop more India-made luxury brands will create even more synergies with global luxury brands, especially French ones.
On climate change
The International Solar Alliance is a brilliant initiative by Prime Minister Modi, which France has actively supported from the very beginning. It has the potential to change the scale of solar energy deployment and significantly reduce its costs. Since its launch in November 2015, a Framework Agreement—signed by almost 30 countries at this stage—has established the Alliance as an international organisation. France has just ratified this framework agreement, and our Foreign Secretary, Christian Masset, handed over its instrument of ratification to [his Indian counterpart] Dr Jaishankar on 17 April.
Climate change is a major challenge and taking action against it is a worldwide obligation. The adoption and swift entry into force of the Paris Agreement was a major step that demonstrated the commitment of most countries to dealing with this challenge. As you point out, it is true that the new American administration has made statements and taken decisions that raise serious concerns on the future of climate action. However, there is no question as to the necessity for every country to keep the "Paris spirit" alive and go ahead with the implementation of the Agreement. It is heartening to see that countries that have shown great leadership at COP21 remain committed to their efforts—India being one of them.
On nuclear vs. renewable energy and cooperation
There has been considerable progress on the Jaitapur nuclear project. This is a very important project for India's economic development and combating climate change. We now have the prospect of building, not two, but six nuclear reactors at Jaitapur. The negotiations are moving forward: our Foreign Secretary, Christian Masset, came to India only last month and a Global Framework Agreement (GFA) should be signed by the end of 2017.
We now have the prospect of building, not two, but six nuclear reactors at Jaitapur.
Safety is a non-negotiable requirement for which the French safety authorities guarantee all precautionary measures. The EPR technology has benefited from the involvement of French and German nuclear safety authorities from its earliest phases and has successfully passed every additional safety assessment conducted in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. The development of civil nuclear energy and that of renewables is complementary in the fight against climate change. The six EPR at Jaitapur, which will reach a total capacity of nearly 10 GW, will be a major contribution to India reaching its target of sourcing 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuels by 2030.
Defence cooperation is one of the cornerstones of our strategic partnership. It goes back 50 years and is based on shared fundamental values, such as strategic autonomy. The Rafale agreement signed in September last year will take our defence cooperation to an unprecedented level. France is committed to assisting India in building its own capabilities and skills: the Rafale agreement, with 50% offsets, will greatly benefit the Indian defence sector and its technological know-how in key areas.
The Rafale agreement signed in September last year will take our defence cooperation to an unprecedented level.
Apart from this emblematic agreement, the vitality of our defence industrial cooperation is reflected in many other projects, such as MDL shipyard building six French-designed conventional state-of-the-art Scorpene submarines in India, or the mid-life upgrade by HAL of India's Mirage 2000 fleet to equip them with state-of-the-art technologies and capabilities.
Fortunately, it is not true that terrorists are a step ahead of our security agencies. Terrorists have managed to perpetrate barbaric attacks in France, Mumbai and elsewhere. But we are fighting back. France and India are in full solidarity against terrorism. India expressed its solidarity with France after the attacks on its territory. Likewise, France most firmly condemned the terrorist attacks against India and called on all countries to fight effectively against terrorism originating from their territory or territories under their control. Nothing can justify terrorism, which must be fought everywhere with equal determination.
Counter-terrorism is a cornerstone of our strategic partnership and we have built a set of operational exchanges and joint actions between our security forces, our armies and our cyber experts
On Delhi and the challenges of megacities
Sustainable urban development is one of the most critical issues and is an area in which France and India work very efficiently together. India is dedicated to achieving its economic and social development in a sustainable way. France has longstanding experience in working on the cities of the future. French companies have expertise in modernising transportation, utilities, planning, IT and communications, building and housing and in financing solutions. We are fully supportive of the Smart Cities Mission, and have launched programmes with several Indian cities, such as Chandigarh, Puducherry and Nagpur.