The deal to sell Rafale fighter jets to India, which caps two decades of attempts to find buyer, hailed as lifesaver for Dassault Aviation. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

After more than two decades of trying, France apparently has finally found a foreign customer for its Rafale fighter jet, reaching an $11 billion deal with India for 126 planes and a heavy technology transfer, the government announced Tuesday.

India’s choice of the Rafale, assuming it is finalized, was hailed as a lifesaving commercial victory for Dassault Aviation, a private firm that developed the swept-winged aircraft in the 1980s but until now had managed to sell it only to the French air force, despite aggressive marketing around the world.

India has entered into “exclusive negotiations” on prices of various components of the deal and the type and manner of technology transfers, officials said. They cautioned that the accord could still come undone but appeared confident that, for all practical purposes, the sale has been made.

“France is delighted at the decision by the Indian government,” said a communique from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Elysee Palace. “Negotiations on the contract will begin soon with the total support of French authorities. It will include important technology transfers guaranteed by the French government.”

India’s decision to enter into exclusive negotiations means that if the final discussions are successful, 18 Rafale jets will be constructed in Dassault plants in France and 108 in India, according to descriptions of the bargain in Paris. In that light, the technology transfer appeared to be an important part of the deal, reflecting India’s desire to improve its aeronautics industry as well as equip its air force with modern warplanes.

The Indian decision was between the Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon. India had already announced it would not buy two U.S. planes that were offered for its consideration, Lockheed’s F-16 and Boeing’s F/A-18. Lockheed’s more modern F-22 was not offered.

The multi-role Rafale, which entered into service in the French air force in 2006, was deployed with success during the NATO-led military intervention in Libya last year, an operation in which France and Britain carried out the majority of airstrikes.

But from the beginning it found great difficulty obtaining foreign buyers, with many specialists saying it was too expensive and a generation behind other aircraft. The Netherlands turned it down in 2001, South Korea the next year. Singapore said no in 2005 and Morocco in 2007. Brazil appeared ready to sign a deal two years ago but never came through, and the United Arab Emirates turned down an offer last year, as did Switzerland.

Against that background, the preliminary deal with India was celebrated with relief. “India’s purchase of Rafale warplanes means a technological, moral and political victory by the best fighter in the world,” declared Bernard Carayon, a member of parliament from Sarkozy’s ruling coalition who has a special interest in France’s export industries.