Why I have profound respect for French democracy

Art of deliberation and discussion is on daily display in France

As someone who admires France, its people, their refinement, their language, and their culture—especially their literature and cinema—I was deeply humbled recently to be conferred their highest civilian honour, the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. For me, France is not just its world-renowned cuisine or the enchanting lavender fields of Provence. It is, in the famous expression, “France, mother of arts, arms and laws.”

To my mind, the conferral of this award to an Indian is also an acknowledgement of the deepening of Franco-Indian relations, and the continuity of the warmth that has been a feature of this relationship for a very long time. We have come a long way from the days the French colonisers fought with the British for land and resources in India, and the French lost. During World War I, some 1.3 lakh Indians served in and around the Somme, and nearly 9,000 died, in a combat that was not theirs. One hundred years later, things are much better.

President Emmanuel Macron said during his visit to India in 2018: “The trust we share protects us while our interests are aligned. We want India to be our first strategic partner here, and we want to be India’s first strategic partner in Europe.” As they adjust to the collapse of the post-war order, India and France recognise the urgency of building partnerships that can provide some stability in an increasingly unstable world. France, which had sought strategic autonomy as part of its alliance with the US, and India, which valued an independent foreign policy, are natural partners in building new partnerships for uncertain times.

Shutterstock Shutterstock

My relationship with France was forged principally through my United Nations experiences. I enrolled in the UN French classes at the Palais des Nations in Geneva and found I had something of a facility for the language. Living in Geneva, I was a frequent visitor to neighbouring parts of France, and once I had left Europe, returned as a writer, for various literary conferences. I observed with great delight that the French have a remarkable ability to engage with ideas—the very hallmark of a civilised society—and also to put forth their viewpoints in the most civil, intelligent and courteous manner. The art of deliberation and discussion is on daily display in France—you can turn on your television at midnight and find thoughtful people discussing complicated issues with erudition and insight. No wonder it was a French philosopher, Rene Descartes, who said, “I think, therefore I am.” The Frenchman can give stiff competition to the “argumentative Indian”!

Inevitably, I have also nurtured a sense of profound respect for French democracy. It’s not too much to claim that the idea of a nation belonging to the people, the idea of a democratic state, was born in the land of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” where ‘the people’ first replaced ‘the king’ as the nucleus of the nation. I’ve been impressed by the French reverence for the republic’s genesis and its founding principles—which has given me, in turn, a deep-rooted appreciation of French democracy.

My association with France and its people is thus one of my most cherished relationships. And I’m not alone. More than 1,09,000 Indians live in France, including about 10,000 Indian students, and the numbers are steadily increasing.

An episode that encapsulated the beauty of the French spirit came during my trip to France in 2002 with a delegation of eminent Indian writers, including the likes of Mahasweta Devi, Javed Akhtar, M. Mukundan and U.R. Ananthamurthy, the ‘Belles Etrangeres’. Our writers, returning from a reception at the majestic Hotel de Ville, found themselves accidental witnesses to the interment of the nineteenth-century novelist Alexandre Dumas, more than a century after his death, in the magnificently lit Pantheon. The Roman columns of this great Parisian monument were bathed in purple, red and blue light; a military band played outside, while an honour guard escorted the coffin of the author of The Three Musketeers its final resting place. Ananthamurthy, the doyen of our group, put it simply to me. “The French,” he said, “really know how to honour their writers.”

May I now add: I am glad they are honouring ours, too.