French President Francois Mitterrand arrived today for an official visit, hours after his country and India signed an agreement on the supply of nuclear fuel for an American-built atomic power plant near Bombay.
Mitterrand, who was warmly greeted at Palam international airport by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zail Singh, said his visit "will turn a new page in the history of Indo-French relations." Both countries wished to escape "from the single-minded policies exercised by the military and political blocs," he added.
The nuclear-supply accord, signed shortly after midnight by French Ambassador Andre Ross and Indian Atomic Energy Commission Chairman H.N. Sethna, effectively transfers to France an obligation undertaken by the United States but abrogated by the 1978 U.S. Nuclear Nonproliferation Act.
While India accepts international inspection of the U.S.-built Tarapur plant, it does not agree to the overall controls required by the 1978 act.
Mitterrand was understood to have intervened personally in the difficult French-Indian negotiations on supplying the enriched uranium for the Tarapur reactor, which is Bombay's primary source of electricity. The plant has been running at 50 percent capacity while the dispute over controls on reprocessing spent fuel dragged on.
The French reportedly were eager to resolve the impasse so Mitterrand could cultivate Gandhi's government and pursue lucrative arms contracts as well as deals for transfer of technology.
Details of the accord were not disclosed, but a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said the two sides had "arrived at an understanding that takes into account the respective concerns of the two countries."
The spokesman indicated that, as India had insisted, the agreement fell within the 1963 accord in which the United States agreed to supply the fuel to India. U.S. abandonment of that agreement triggered a dispute that soured U.S.-Indian relations until they agreed in July to transfer the U.S. obligation to France.
As one of 15 member countries of the nuclear suppliers' group, or the "London Club," France is committed to impose safeguards on nuclear fuel reprocessing. These include the "pursuit" clause -- which would extend the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards not only to Tarapur, but to any plant using its byproducts -- and the "perpetuity" clause that would apply the safeguards beyond the 1993 expiration of the Indo-U.S. agreement.
India has said both safeguard clauses are unacceptable and has threatened to scrap the U.S. agreement and reprocess spent fuel anyway, using the derived plutonium for operating Tarapur.
Reuter quoted Ambassador Ross as saying, however, that France has decided that since it is taking the place of the United States in the 1963 accord, this makes the 1978 "London Club" guidelines retroactive and therefore they do not apply.
France already has contracts with India worth more than $3 billion, including a huge aluminum project in Orissa, oil exploration off the Bombay coast, telephone switching projects and the sale of 40 Mirage 2000 fighters. It is trying to interest Gandhi's government in 110 more Mirages, including 65 that would be built here under license, and is pushing the sale of its Puma helicopter, Exocet missiles and other military hardware.
A French diplomat said that because India has shown signs of wanting to reduce its arms dependency on the Soviet Union -- and because the Soviets have been reticent to transfer arms technology -- France views India as fertile territory to substitute for increasingly difficult Western markets.