There is a glint in Arthur de Montalembert’s eyes when you ask him about his first trip to India, in 1974. “I decided to take two months off to come here,” he starts. The 23-year-old student landed in Bombay accompanied by a friend and a small suitcase stuffed with jeans. The first stop was Ajanta, after which they travelled to Bhopal, Jaisalmer, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Calcutta. “We travelled by train, bus and even a truck. From Calcutta, we went to Bhubaneswar and then to Hyderabad and Hampi,” recalls de Montalembert, chuckling about his bout of Delhi belly on a long-distance train. “I was sure I would come back.”
He did, several times, before moving here in November 2008 as chairman and MD of Areva India. And now, when the 61-year-old travels around India, it’s not to tourist hot spots but to rural Jaitapur and Dhursar. Those are the places in Maharashtra and Rajasthan where Areva is working on a $9-billion (Rs.49,500 crore) project with Nuclear Power Corporation of India and is building a 125 MW solar plant for Reliance Power. “We have interesting products to sell and India is experiencing rapid and exponential growth. It’s a good combination,” points out de Montalembert happily.
de Montalembert and Areva aren’t the only French nationals saying oui to India. There are an estimated 450 France-headquartered companies here that are stepping up their operations, from Dassault Aviation’s $10-billion deal to supply 126 fighter jets to the Indian Air Force; DCNS inking a deal to make submarines; Accor Hotels looking to have 14,000 rooms by 2015 from the current 3,600; Carrefour openi