NEW DELHI (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande made a fresh push Thursday to clinch the world's biggest defence deal, the US$12 billion (S$14.8 billion) sale of 126 warplanes to India, during his first visit to Asia since taking office.
The Socialist president was accompanied by a high-powered delegation of five ministers including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The two-day visit by politicians and business leaders began in New Delhi and will see the delegation head south to India's financial capital Mumbai on Friday.
Speaking in English after being accorded a red carpet reception and gun salute at the residence of his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee, Mr Hollande said it was "a great honour for me and for France to visit India".
"I am sure that this visit will see our relationship at the best level we can hope," Mr Hollande said.
"We come from a great partnership, India and France, and we must always improve the relationship between our two countries.
"India is a great democracy, the biggest democracy of the world, a country which is developing and France must be with you in this challenge."
The trip is Mr Hollande's first to Asia since taking office in May and both Indian and French officials say the mission underscores the importance France attaches to ties with the world's second-fastest growing major economy.
"Our relations are growing fast in all sectors... in economic, industrial and commercial spheres," an Indian foreign ministry official said, while cautioning against expecting any big-bang announcements from Mr Hollande's visit.
Mr Hollande is accompanied by a large contingent of French business leaders, including Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier, whose company is hoping to seal a deal to sell 126 Rafale warplanes to India in the world's biggest defence contract currently under negotiation.
The contract, which India's airforce chief said last week could be signed by the middle of the year, will feature prominently in Mr Hollande's talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which followed his meeting with Mukherjee.
In a welcome showcase for Dassault, the jets have been deployed during the lightning offensive in Mali, French-led military campaign to drive out Islamists from the African nation's northern territory.
India last year chose the French firm for exclusive negotiations to equip its air force with new fighters and while New Delhi says the discussions are "proceeding smoothly" it has already said the contract will not be signed during Mr Hollande's visit as it is being fine-tuned.
Paris will have to "wait a little" to pop the bubbly, Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid advised last week.
Another major project for discussion is a contract for Areva to build a 9,900-megawatt nuclear power plant in the western coastal state of Maharashtra.
The US$9.3-billion (S$11.4 billion) framework agreement was signed during a visit to India in 2010 by Mr Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
But the project has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists concerned about seismic activity in the area and fears about the safety of nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
India said this week it is "fully committed" to the French-assisted Jaitapur nuclear plant but conceded there are "issues pertaining to cost".
In an editorial on Thursday, The Times of India said that France "is arguably India's longest standing all-weather friend, save Russia" but said it was too rooted in trade rather than a partnership of equals.
"This is indeed a good time to move the engagement from one that is still tactical and transactional to one that is more strategic and sustainable," said the paper.