REPORTING FROM PARIS -- After 30 years of setbacks, France appears to have found a foreign buyer for its Rafale fighter planes.
India is in exclusive negotiations with Paris to purchase 126 of the multipurpose aircraft for $11 billion, officials said Tuesday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared India's interest in the planes a “signal of confidence for the whole French economy,” and said, “We've waited for this day for 30 years.”
Past deals have fallen through after the Rafale was deemed too expensive compared with the Eurofighter Typhoon, its closest European rival, built by a consortium of British, German, Spanish and Italian companies.
This time, the Rafale's maker, Dassault Aviation, reportedly dropped its price to make the deal more attractive. France was also said to have made concessions on the transfer of technology to India.
Defense specialists said the Rafale had shone in the air campaign in Libya, where the aircraft carried out 2,000 sorties.
“Let's face it. What better argument for a sale can there be than that it proved itself in combat,” Guy Anderson, analyst in chief at Jane's Defence Industry, told the French magazine L'Express.
Until recently, the future of the Rafale looked so gloomy. French officials suggested production might be halted.
Analysts warned that the deal could still unravel.
“This is just the first step. Rafale has been selected as preferred bidder but any student of Indian procurement knows that this means nothing until the contract is physically signed,” said James Hardy, Asia Pacific specialist at IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
A spokesman for the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium told the BBC that the decision was disappointing but emphasized that it was not final.
Shares in Dassault climbed 18% on the French stock exchange after the announcement of the possible contract.
-- Kim Willsher
Photo: A Dassault Rafale fighter jet at the 2009 Paris Air Show. France's Dassault Aviation is in final talks for a multibillion-dollar contract with the Indian air force for 126 Rafale jets. Credit: Lucas Dolega / European Pressphoto Agency