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India is a major strategic partner, and will remain so, says French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault

The winds of change blowing through the UK, US and Europe could have implications for India and its ties with major powers such as France. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault talks to Indrani Bagchi about the future of France-India ties.

Q. What are the focus areas for France-India cooperation now?

France and India are united by a long, loyal friendship. Our strategic partnership dates back to 1998 and enables us to cooperate on all subjects, including the most sensitive ones such as counter-terrorism, defence, civil nuclear energy and aerospace. This shows the degree of trust between our two countries. We have built a solid relationship in all areas, including economy, education, research and culture. I would also like to highlight our vibrant dialogue on sustainable development and climate change with Prime Minister Modi. This dialogue was a crucial factor in the success of the Paris Agreement. It has given rise to numerous concrete cooperation projects between our countries and businesses, including on the implementation of the Smart Cities Programme

Q. With Francois Hollande out of the race for the French presidential elections, and the buzz around Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, is there cause for India to be nervous about bilateral ties?

India is a major strategic partner for France, and will remain so. The friendship between France and India is not dependent on the domestic political developments of either country, and commits all successive French and Indian governments. The key words are trust and long-term commitment.

Q. Staying in Europe, could there be a possibility of "Frexit", and after the Italian referendum, is the Eurozone under threat?

Most people in France want to stay in the European Union. Although they sometimes criticize its workings, they are well aware of what Europe has brought them: peace and economic prosperity for the last 60 years. Some populists want France to leave the European Union, but what do they propose in its place? Not a thing! That would be a leap in the dark, and damaging to everyone. France's future is in Europe. That does not mean that we shouldn't bring about change in the European Union, so that it best addresses the expectations of its citizens.

As for the euro, I can assure you that it is a solid currency that has endured major crises in the past and is certainly not threatened by the result of a referendum in a Member State.

Q. How do you see Brexit playing out for Europe in the coming days?

Brexit is, of course, a decision that we regret. But we have to respect the decision of the British people. The possibility of a Member State withdrawing from the EU was, moreover, provided for in the Treaty on European Union, with the Article 50 exit procedure. We therefore have a legal framework under which to work. The British government now needs to officially notify its decision to leave the European Union as soon as possible, and it has not yet done so. With effect from the notification, a period of two years will begin for negotiating the conditions for its exit.

These negotiations will have to respect a number of principles, including the fact that access to the internal market of the European Union is inseparable from free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. These four freedoms are inextricably linked, as the 27 other Member States confirmed following the British referendum.

Q. With US President-elect Donald Trump appearing to want to normalize US-Russia relations, how does France assess Russia today?

France is bound to the United States by relations of friendship dating back to the country's very origins and is preparing to work with the new American administration. It will be up to them to clarify their positions on a certain number of subjects that are of vital importance for the whole international community. In an uncertain world, the European Union has a special role to play as a bastion of stability, capable of providing effective collective responses to crises. I hope that Donald Trump will be keen to commit to this shared effort to bring solutions to major global challenges.

Russia is a partner for France, and a country that counts. We have constant, clear dialogue with it. When our positions diverge, we have to recognize that and work on resolving the issue.

Q. India is laying a great deal of emphasis on the Indian Ocean region. How are India and France working together in this area?

We have major shared ambitions regarding maritime security and cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Of course, France is also an Indian Ocean country, because of Reunion Island. France has always considered India to be an essential partner for regional stability and security. Our two countries work together, be it cooperation between our navies or industrial matters. We regularly hold an annual bilateral dialogue to strengthen our relations in this area. In fact, its next session will take place in Delhi in a few days' time

Q. Europe has given China a free pass on human rights and other issues in the interests of economic cooperation in the hope that China would become more integrated with the west. China is changing the rules, as we saw in South China Sea. How does Europe see a growing China?

Europe does not give a free pass to any country, and France works to ensure that its relations with all partners are consistent with its values. That's the case with human rights, which it is essential to respect. In this regard, I don't think there is any contradiction between the interests of economic diplomacy and values such as freedom and human rights, which are defended by France and the European Union. France's relationship of trust with China allows us to discuss all subjects, without exception, and I make very sure of that.

Q. There appear to be concerns about the financial health of the French company EDF which is expected to build nuclear plants in India. Where is the status of the project at and what are the timelines for the Jaitapur project at this time?

EDF is one of the most financially robust European companies. In order to continue its development and in accordance with its strategy promoting low-carbon innovation, EDF has drawn up an action plan involving the elimination of certain non-strategic assets, operational savings and a capital increase via a market operation of around 4 billion. The French Government fully supports EDF's plan and is committed to contributing 3 billion to this capital increase operation.

During his State visit in January 2016, President Hollande reaffirmed, alongside Prime Minister Modi, the shared determination of our two countries to complete the construction of 6 EPR in Jaitapur. The negotiations are moving forward and a Global Framework Agreement (GFA) should be signed in mid-2017. The Chairman of EDF will also be visiting India in the coming days. This is a vital project for our strategic partnership. It is also very important to enable India to ensure that its economic development is in compliance with its commitments to combating climate change.

Q. How is France dealing with the migrants issue now?

Migration is part of human history across all continents. It contributes to its diversity and enrichment and the contact of peoples and cultures. In the face of rising fears that are testing our political systems, our societies and our unity, it is our responsibility to stress that refugees need protection above all, and that they are men and women - like all of us - to whom we owe fraternity and solidarity. In 2016, Europe dealt with a historic influx of refugees, primarily as a direct result of conflicts in the Mediterranean Basin and Syria, in particular.

To address this situation as effectively as possible, the European Union is implementing a policy based on the principles of solidarity and responsibility. Solidarity with refugees, who need the international protection we have committed to granting them, and also with Member States, through direct support for the European countries that are most affected. And responsibility, through enhanced action to combat human smugglers and traffickers who exploit migrants' despair, and a strengthened return policy for those not eligible for international protection. As has often been the case in the European Union's history, it is during a crisis that its policies have been enhanced - this time in the area of asylum.

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