The Failed Empire

France’s troubled obsession with India

01 March 2018

IN THE FALL OF 2017, the French government launched “Bonjour India,” an ambitious programme of cultural diplomacy in India, promising to tell Indians “the story of how and when we met.” Over the past winter, it brought over a hundred events to more than thirty cities across India, including film screenings in Kolkata, a regatta in Pondicherry and an automotive show in Chennai. Yet one would hardly know from the programme’s boat races and book discussions that the story of how France and India met is a rich and troubled tale.

For many centuries, India was a French preoccupation, a source of precious commodities, vital alliances, literary inspiration and spiritual insight. Fortunes were sought, and sometimes made, by bringing the dazzling cotton cloth of early-modern India (known in French simply as "Indians") to French shores. In 1788, Parisian crowds flocked to see ambassadors from Tipu Sultan's Mysore, and, during the French Revolution, French mercenaries stationed in Tipu's capital were said to have hailed him as a "citizen-sultan." French literature is filled with fantasies about India; some of its most notable characters have Indian connections. Captain Nemo, the great anti-hero of Jules Verne's science-fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), is an Indian prince whose participation in the anti-British revolt of 1857 forced him to go underground (or undersea). India's spiritual heritage fascinated two of the most singular French women of the twentieth century: Mirra Alfassa, who was later the head of Sri Aurobindo's ashram, and the mathematician Maximiani Portaz, who became convinced that Adolf Hitler was an avatar of Vishnu.

Much of France's fixation with India formed in the shadow of a failed empire. For a few decades in the early eighteenth century, it seemed that France might be a major power in India. It made and unmade rulers at its will, casting its influence across much of modern-day Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. The memory of this fleeting glory haunted French culture over the next three centuries, stoking nostalgia and regret. Today, as witnessed by “Bonjour India,” the French government and the cultural institutions it funds tend to discreetly avoid many topics of the Franco-Indian past. But a new generation of historians is telling a more complete story.

One of them is Jyoti Mohan, who, in her recent book Claiming India, traces how France developed a unique relationship with the Indian subcontinent. She builds on the work of pioneers such as Kate Marsh, who explored the French fascination with India in the eighteenth century and the postcolonial era, and the great French historian Jacques Weber, whose study of Pondicherry between 1816 and 1914 runs to over 5,000 pages. Mohan's path through this challenging field of history focusses on how French thinkers imagined India. In Claiming India, she argues cogently and carefully that as the French state failed to build an empire in the subcontinent, French intellectuals constructed a substitute: an India of their own built through scholarship and imagination.

FRANCE WAS A LATECOMER to the subcontinent. While Britain and the Netherlands created companies to challenge Portugal's control of Indian Ocean trade at the beginning of the seventeenth century, France did not do so until 1664. It acquired Pondicherry, the first and most important of its Indian trading posts, in 1674, nearly two centuries after the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. Initially struggling to enter markets already under the sway of the British and the Dutch, by the 1740s the French Company became at least an equal to its rivals. Its headquarters, in Pondicherry, grew into a major commercial centre, and new French trading posts appeared as far afield as Bengal and Kerala.

Blake Smith , a fellow at the European University Institute, is a historian of French exchange with India. His essays appear in such outlets as The Atlantic, Aeon and The Wire. He translated To Die in Benares, K Madavane’s forthcoming collection of short stories.

Keywords: India France colonialism Voltaire imperialism empire orientalism Upanishad