Press Trust of india

Nirmala Sitharaman leaves for France on 3-day visit

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New Delhi, Oct 10:  Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman left for France Wednesday night on a three-day visit which comes amid a massive controversy over the procurement of 36 Rafale jets from French aerospace company Dassault Aviation under a Rs 58,000 crore deal.

Officials sources said Sitharaman will hold wide-ranging talks with her French counterpart Florence Parly on ways to deepen strategic cooperation between the two countries and the two sides will also deliberate on major regional and global issues of mutual interests.

They said Sitharaman will also take stock of progress in the supply of the Rafale jets by Dassault to the Indian Air Force. There was indication that she may even visit the facility where the jets are being manufactured.

Sitharaman’s visit comes nearly three weeks after former French President Francois Hollande was quoted by French publication ‘Mediapart’ as saying that Indian government proposed the name of Reliance to partner with Dassault Aviation for the Rafale deal.

The comments by Hollande, who was French president when the Rafale deal was finalised, triggered a huge political row.

The government has vehemently rejected the allegations and asserted that it did not have any role in the selection of Reliance Defence.

In their talks, Sitharaman and Parly are expected to deliberate on joint production of military platforms and weapons by the two countries.

Earlier this year, France was pitching for starting negotiations for procurement of another batch of 36 Rafale jets by India. However, New Delhi was not keen on pursuing it.

In April, the Indian Air Force started the process to acquire a fleet of 114 fighter jets and Dassault Aviation has emerged as one of the key contenders for the contract.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the procurement of a batch of 36 Rafale jets after talks with the then French President Francois Hollande on April 10, 2015 in Paris. The final deal was sealed on September 23, 2016.

The Congress has been alleging massive irregularities in the deal, saying the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government when it was negotiating the deal.

The Congress has also been targeting the government over selection of Reliance Defence as an offset partner for Dassault.

Sources said Sitharaman will discuss with Parly ways to expand Indo-French maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

French President Emmanuel Macron had visited India in March during which the two countries decided to expand strategic ties and deepen counter-terror cooperation.

The two sides also inked a strategic pact providing for the use of each other’s military facilities including opening naval bases to warships.

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