By Sabine Wibaux ,AFP
CHANDIGARH, India — France’s President Francois Hollande played down the prospect of a swift conclusion to a drawn-out deal for New Delhi to buy 36 French jet fighters as he began a 3-day visit to India Sunday. The invitation for Hollande to be chief guest at India’s Republic Day military parade on Tuesday had raised expectations that the multibillion-U.S.-dollar agreement for the Rafale jets would finally be sealed. But after landing in the northern city of Chandigarh, Hollande cooled talk that the contract was on the verge of being signed. He said further discussions were needed on a prior inter-governmental agreement. “We are going to take another step on the road which we hope will lead us to India’s acquisition of the 36 Rafale jets,” Hollande told reporters. “India needs them and France has shown that it has the world’s best aircraft. “The commercial contract can only come after the inter-governmental accord … which will be discussed during my visit.” While Hollande said he was “optimistic” about the inter-governmental accord being agreed on Monday, a senior French official acknowledged negotiations were still snagged on the price.
And in an interview with the Press Trust of India news agency, the French president said that “agreeing on the technicalities of this arrangement obviously takes time.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in Paris last year that his government had agreed to buy the jets as India looks to modernize its Soviet-era military and keep up with neighboring Pakistan and communist mainland China. The two leaders stepped into the long-delayed deal after tortuous negotiations over a much-larger agreement first signed with France’s Dassault Aviation in 2012 broke down. A sticking point has been Delhi’s insistence that arms makers invest a percentage of the value of any major deal in India, known as the offset clause.