Amidst the escalating tensions over the Rafale fighter jet deal, the French government on Sunday said that it feared damage to its relations with India after former president Francois Hollande added fuel to the ongoing controversy.
Hollande, who left office in May last year, said on Friday that French jet manufacturer Dassault Aviation had been given no choice about its local partner in a 2016 deal with the Indian administration.
The nationalist government of Narendra Modi agreed to buy 36 Rafale jets from Dassault, which announced afterwards it was partnering for the project with billionaire Anil Ambani rather than India's public defence conglomerate Hindustan Aernautics Limited.
Hollande's announcement that Dassault "did not have a say in it" added fuel to claims from India's opposition that the New Delhi government had intervened to help Ambani, who is a supporter of Modi and hails from the same state as him.
"I find these remarks made overseas, which concern important international relations between France and India, do not help anyone and above all do not help France," junior foreign minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said Sunday about Hollande.
"Because one is no longer in office, causing damage to a strategic partnership between India and France by making remarks that clearly cause controversy in India is really not appropriate," he said in an interview on Radio J.
Hollande made the comments to defend himself from accusations of a conflict of interest because Ambani's Reliance conglomerate had partially financed a film produced by his girlfriend, Julie Gayet, in 2016.
The choice of Reliance for a highly strategic contract to upgrade India's ageing fleet of fighter jets had caused surprise at the time because the group had no previous experience in the aeronautics industry.
Hollande's comments were front-page news in Indian newspapers on Saturday and it was the top trending topic on Twitter.
Rahul Gandhi, head of the main opposition Congress party, who is seeking to replace Modi and his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in elections next year, went on the offensive.
"An ex-president of France is calling him (the prime minister of India) a thief. It's a question of the dignity of the office of the prime minister," he told a news conference in New Delhi.
Rahul Gandhi soon drew flak from the BJP, with its leaders accusing him of making 'irresponsible' and 'shameful' comments.
(With PTI inputs)