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France, India discuss defence, energy after parade

PARIS (Reuters) - India wants to strengthen trade and political ties with France, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Tuesday after Indian troops were given pride of place in the annual Bastille Day military parade.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) is welcomed by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy at the official guest residence in Paris July 13, 2009. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

About 400 Indian soldiers headed the colourful march down the Champs Elysees, under the gaze of Singh and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, while French military aircraft roared overhead.

The two men held a working lunch, where they discussed trade, including defence and nuclear energy projects.

“France loves India,” Sarkozy told guests on the lawn of the Elysee Palace after the talks.

India plans to spend more than $30 billion over the next five years on modernising its largely Soviet-era weapons systems and has launched an ambitious civilian nuclear energy programme worth billions of dollars.

France has already secured a slice of the nuclear cake and is eyeing lucrative defence contracts, working hard to improve ties with India which has traditionally had closer relations with its former colonial ruler, Britain.

“I hope that we can deepen our strategic partnership in all possible ways ... so that we can write a new chapter in the history of the world,” Singh said, standing alongside Sarkozy.

As part of its military plans, India is looking to buy helicopters, radar and 126 multi-role warplanes in what promises to be one of the world’s biggest defence deals.

France’s Dassault Aviation is bidding to sell its Rafale fighter plane to New Delhi and a source close to Sarkozy said on Tuesday there would be test flights later this year.

Among other contracts under review were the modernisation and renovation of about 50 Mirage combat planes operated by India.

“Both sides want to deepen their industrial cooperation in the defence sector,” the presidential source said.

Sarkozy and Singh discussed atomic energy and were “happy that things continue to progress”, the source said.

France’s Areva claimed a first victory in the race to grab a share of India’s nuclear market in February, signing a preliminary accord worth more than 8 billion euros ($11.19 billion) to build up to six atomic reactors.

Sarkozy has gone out of his way to woo New Delhi since taking office in 2007 and last week said India, along with other developing countries, should always be part of Group of Eight summits.

Inviting India to lead the Bastille Day parade was seen in France as a major honour and an indication of the warm ties between the two countries.

The parade is one of the grand occasions in the French calendar and marks the storming of the Bastille fortress in 1789, traditionally seen as the start of the French revolution.

Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Andrew Dobbie