Paris: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh called on French President Emmanuel Macron here on Tuesday and the two leaders discussed stronger India-France defence and strategic ties during their "very warm and productive" meeting.
Singh arrived in France on Monday for an official handover ceremony of the first Rafale fighter jet acquired by the Indian Air Force (IAF).
During the meeting at Elysee Palace here, the official base of the French President, the two leaders comprehensively discussed key aspects of bilateral defence partnership and resolved to continue strengthening the ties between the two countries.
"I thanked President Macron for his strong support to further intensifying our strategic partnership, especially in the defence sector, with India and for our Make in India' initiatives," Singh said after the 35-minute meeting.
He also thanked the French President for the strong support by France to India's strategic interests and principles, including in fighting terrorism.
The meeting was described by the ministry of defence as "very warm and productive".
"The meeting demonstrated the depth of India-France bilateral partnership, especially in the defence sector, that has significantly strengthened in recent times. Both leaders resolved to take the relationship to the next higher level," the ministry said in a statement.
Singh also expressed condolences on the demise of former French President Jacques Chirac on behalf of the Indian government, saying Chirac had played a decisive role in forging India-France Strategic Partnership.
"We have a multi-dimensional relationship with France and the ties are progressing on all fronts. The talks today are part of a comprehensive defence dialogue between the two countries," said Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar, who is part of the ministerial delegation to France.
Singh also held discussions with France's Armed Forces minister Florence Parly. Admiral Bernard Rogel, Defence Advisor to the French President, was also present at the meeting.
After the talks, Singh travelled to Merignac, a suburb of the south-western French town of Bordeaux, where participated in a tour of the facility of Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation before a symbolic ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first Rafale combat jet.
The minister performed a brief Shastra Puja on the new aircraft as he emblazoned it with an 'Om' tilak and laid flowers and a coconut, just before he was to take off in it for a sortie in the newly-acquired two-seater jet.
"It is indeed a great honour to be able to fly in this new fighter jet," said 68-year-old Singh, just before take off.
On September 19, Singh flew in the Tejas fighter aircraft from the HAL airport in Bengaluru, becoming the first defence minister to fly in the indigenously-built light combat aircraft (LCA).
The ceremony coincided with the foundation day of the Indian Air Force as well as the Dussehra celebrations.
"Greetings to all IAF personnel and their families on the 87th IAF Day," Singh tweeted.
"The IAF is the shining example of exemplary courage, fortitude, determination and impeccable service to our nation. These men and women in Blue have the ability to touch the sky with grit and glory," he said.
Members of the top military brass of France as well as senior officials of Dassault Aviation were present at the ceremony.
India had ordered 36 Rafale fighter jets from France in a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore in September 2016. While the formal handover ceremony takes place this week, the first batch of four Rafale jets will fly to their home base in India by May 2020.
All 36 jets are expected to arrive in India by September 2022, for which the IAF has been reportedly undertaking preparations, including readying required infrastructure and training of pilots.
The Rafale is a twin-jet fighter aircraft able to operate from both an aircraft carrier and a shore base. The manufacturers describe it as a fully versatile aircraft which can carry out all combat aviation missions to achieve air superiority and air defence, close air support, in-depth strikes, reconnaissance, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence
"In the defence sector, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is our longest standing export customer and has been flying Dassault aircraft since 1953. The acquisition contract for 36 Rafale signed in 2016 and the modernisation of the Mirage 2000 I/TI are a continuation of this historic partnership," Dassault Aviation said in a statement.
The Rafale jets intended for India are expected to come with certain bespoke modifications for the IAF and have been awaited as a crucial enhancement to India's Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft fleet.
The first Rafale jet will come with tail number RB 001, with RB denoting the initials of Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria who played a key role in striking the deal for the jets in his previous role as IAF deputy chief.
The handover ceremony will be followed by the annual Indo-French Defence Dialogue in Paris.
On Wednesday, the minister is scheduled to address CEOs representing leading French defence industry enterprises. As part of a wider 'Make in India' message, Singh will invite them to participate in the DefExpo to be held in Lucknow from February 5 to 8 next year.
Singh landed in Paris on Monday night for a three-day official visit, which he said is aimed at expanding the existing strategic partnership between both the countries.
In a statement, Singh noted that India's "special relationship" with France goes far beyond the realm of formal ties.