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President Hollande’s Musings on India

In contrast to France, disruption rather than continuity is the order of the day in India today.

January 30, 2016

In contrast to France, disruption rather than continuity is the order of the day in India today.

Art, fashion and spiritualism constitute areas of instant rapport between India and France. But art and fashion were far from President Hollande’s objectives on his recent three-day Indian safari.

During his journey, it must have struck the French President that there is no easy familiarity between the French and Indians. The cultural gap goes beyond the language barrier.

At the heart of the difference is the romantic liberalism of the French, naively combined with a deep allegiance to preserving their culture.

In India, traditional culture far from being a warm and comfortable place represents social servitude to two thirds of Indians who were at the bottom of the steep social pyramid.

For these Indians, rapid urbanization and industrialization are the drivers to erode the biases against women, the poor and the marginalized.

Disruption rather than continuity is the order of the day in India today.

Too shy?

Little wonder then that there was no spontaneous affection between the visiting French President and the Indian people.

No spontaneous intermingling of minds and hearts was on display, such as when Bill Clinton danced the Ghoomer with Haryanvi villagers in 2000.

Nor did the rather stiff French leader capture hearts and minds, in the manner Michelle Obama did last year, with her ready laugh and radiating warmth.

A natural restraint isn’t only the temperament of the President. The French are formal people, which explains why their Presidents do not really go around grabbing babies or unknown dancers.

The familiarity never extends beyond a glacial airbrush, double kiss. Elegance, grace and exclusive glamour is the French game.

This was on display in Delhi as well, when President Hollande supped with India’s “beautiful people.”

Hollande’s readout on India

Sinking into the warm familiarity of his customized Airbus A 300-200, while reaching languidly for his favorite seafood aperitif and a well-deserved glass of French wine, he mused about his “learnings from India” — as all diligent leaders must.

Hollande’s overriding emotion was of envy — envy at how solidly the state is in control in India and envy about how deeply stabilizing the role of elites is in India.

For Hollande’s visit, Delhi, a city state of 10 million people was effortlessly turned into a fortress, by relying on 60,000 security personnel. It worked without a hitch.

Compare that order with Paris, where members of Hollande’s delegation may have had difficulty upon their return to get a cab back home, because taxi drivers were on strike against the ubiquitous Uber’s entry into France.

If only, the President must have thought, I had more Indians in France, things would work better.

Illusions are the reality

Second, he brooded over the new Indian Rope Trick which Modi and his team have perfected.

In that masterful staging of India’s past, diversity and tradition are kept alive as a fond memory – yielding a mesmerizing, albeit static picture in the head.

Meanwhile, all across India’s rich kaleidoscope of people, the real-life incentives to shed diversity and become part of a national mainstream.

Thus, all those colorful floats, the folk dancers and the rows of soldiers marching in age old regimental silos in a manner reminiscent of 19th century India – serve to highlight that they have transcended traditional cleavages.

India’s nationalism is not about one dress, one food, one drink and one language. It is something much deeper and more visceral.

The President shook his head. Such flippant, multi leveled, varied allegiances to social norms as India has on rich display would never do in France, where one culture is the leitmotiv of nationalism.

Social stability and change

President Hollande also mulled over the resilience of the feudal order in India, although it has thankfully mutated away from ancient entitlements to merit-based access to state resources.

Meanwhile, family and clan networks, patrimony and inherited wealth remain the currency of convening power. Quite like Africa, he must have thought.

At the Indian President’s party, Hollande also smiled at the contrast between the plainer “people” — think Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, with his socks insolently peeking through his open sandals, loping around to be noticed.

Contrast that with the haughty power exuded by the powder blue, baby soft, finely embroidered Kashmiri shawl, wrapped around a seated Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, like an impregnable cloak of influence.

Give me some air please

Not surprisingly, Hollande coughed as he felt the smog and pollution in the capital city literally take his breath away.

Despite the chirpy commentary on Republic Day, which ignored the oppressive mist and spoke joyfully of the bright skies, he could smell the smog through the glass screen and feel his throat constricting.

Nuclear power, the President thought, is what India needs and the French can provide.

Money, money, money…

No doubt, the business potential of the visit warmed President Hollande’s heart.

But could French business, accustomed to high margin deals and troubled with low cash reserves, work in the price-sensitive Indian markets? Indians actually worry about the cost of fuel while buying a Porsche.

How, the President must have mused, can I make French business nimble and lean like the Chinese? Or flush with cash, as the Japanese, who casually drop down investment in dollops of $10 billion?

In short, how to shake the French industrial aristocracy out of their complacence?

Instant graphics

Taking in all these impressions, the French President’s beguiling, spaniel-like eyes drooped in weariness. His horn-rimmed spectacles slipped off. The unsettling turbulence of India ebbed and he surrendered to the familiar, warm grandeur of Statist France. Thank God and the Republic, I am French he thought before he dozed off mid-air.


In contrast to France, disruption rather than continuity is the order of the day in India today.

Could French business -- used to high margin deals -- work in the price-sensitive Indian markets?

India's nationalism is not about one language. It is something much deeper and more visceral.