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French defence minister to discuss stalled Dassault deal on India visit

Taking off or not? Talks over India's purchase of 126 Rafales from Dassault have dragged on for months
Taking off or not? Talks over India's purchase of 126 Rafales from Dassault have dragged on for months Reuters/Adj Nicolas-Nelson Richard/ECPAD/Handout

A much-delayed purchase of Dassault Rafale fighter jets is expected to feature highly in talks between France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and India’s AK Antony on Saturday. Le Drian pays a two-day visit to India this weekend.

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Le Drian will brief his Indian counterpart on France’s views of the security situation Afghanistan and Pakistan, a briefing that has only previously been given to the US and the United Kingdom, according to India’s Zeenews.com.

Dossier: Pakistan General Election 2013

But sparks may fly on a more contentious issue – long-drawn-out negotiations over the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) purchase of 126 Rafale combat fighters from French defence giant, Dassault Aviation, worth as much as 15 billion euros.

Dassault was declared the lowest bidder for the contract on 31 January 2012 but deadlines to wrap up the deal have been repeatedly broken, despite IAF Chief Marshal NAK Browne declaring that this “mother of all contracts” was the “IAF’s highest priority”.

French President François Hollande claimed to see progress when he visited Delhi five months ago but Dassault Aviation boss Eric Trappier on Thursday would only predict that the contract would be signed by the end of the year.

The French are now worried that an Indian general election, due before May 2014, could disrupt the deal or even lead to its cancellation, according to the Delhi-based Business Standard.

The sticking point is Dassault’s reluctance to accept responsibility for on-time delivery, given that Delhi insists that 108 of the planes be produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

Questions will also be raised about delay in delivery of six Scorpene submarines, being built by Mazabon Dock Ltd (MDL) in Mumbai. They were supposed to be delivered in 2012 but MDL recently announced they would not be available before 2016.

The two ministers may hope to lighten the mood on a visit to the city of Gwalior.

They will visit the airfield where the IAF has three squadrons of French-supplied Mirage 2000 fighters.

They will also visit the Jai Vilas Palace, which is said to be modelled on Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace, and sites relating to French officers who, 200 years ago, helped develop the army of the city’s then-rulers, the Scindian Maharajas.

Le Drian and Antony are also expected to discuss the Maitri air defence missile programme, according to Indian officials.

India is the biggest customer for weapons from France, which last year slipped from fourth to fifth place in the world arms sale league.

Le Drian will also meet French businessmen working in India and Indian MPs and academics.

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