Affluence, Corruption : Pondicherry: India French Connection

Times Staff Writer

Most of the residents here have never set foot in France. Only a few speak French. Most are Hindu vegetarians who would not know an escargot from an eggplant, a Bordeaux wine from a banana milkshake.

Yet, legally at least, more than 16,000 of the people living in Pondicherry, at the southern tip of India, are as French as Francois Mitterrand or Christian Dior. Because of a treaty signed when the former French outpost became part of newly independent India 33 years ago, they enjoy full rights of French citizenship, including old-age benefits, poverty assistance and subsidized schooling.

By Indian standards, this makes them well off. French Pondicherrian families receive an average of more than $6,000 a year from the French government, nearly 25 times the per capita income of India. The French Consulate here is the largest source of income, paying out more than $20 million a year in benefits to a swelling population of French citizens who are not very French at all.

'Less and Less French'

"There are more and more French citizens here," the consul general in Pondicherry, Henry Combes, said, "and these citizens are less and less French."

In fact, Pondicherry has become an expensive, nagging headache for the French government, a massive mal de tete of public assistance, unemployment, corruption, fraud and indirect involvement in illegal Hindu dowry schemes.

"The corruption here," one French diplomat said bitterly, "beats everything I have seen in Yemen, Morocco, Syria and the Middle East in general."

The French presence in Pondicherry began on a more upbeat note in 1674 when agents of the French East India Co. settled here, hoping to establish a commercial foothold on the Indian subcontinent.

Reduced to 4 Cities

For a century, the French attempted to compete with the British for control of the region. But after the British consolidated their power in India in the mid-18th Century, the French found their sovereignty reduced to Pondicherry and three smaller coastal cities, Mahe, Karikal and Yanam.

Pondicherry remained in French hands until 1954 when Premier Pierre Mendes-France agreed with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that it and the three other French possessions would be transferred to India. In exchange, the Indians agreed that any Pondicherrians who wished to remain French citizens would be allowed to continue living in India.

The treaty was finally ratified by the French Parliament in 1962. Surprisingly, although 75,000 Indians were eligible to stay French, only 7,000 chose to do so. The rest opted for Indian citizenship.

"The reason was that many people were afraid the government of India would evict them," Madan Balasubramaniam, 55, an Indian journalist in Pondicherry, said of those who rejected the French offer. "They were afraid they would have to go to France where they could not manage. Now, 90% regret the decision."

Today, those who accepted French citizenship--and their descendants--are an affluent minority. They make up less than 3% of the 600,000 people living in Pondicherry. Consequently, French influence over the territory's culture is minimal, limited mostly to the 700 students at the French government lycee , a French-administered Indian studies institute, and the large consulate, where officials say 80% of the work involves paying out pensions and benefits.

Except for the crumbling old Hotel Grand d'Europe, which has a French-speaking owner, a few dozen French colonial buildings and war monuments on the waterfront, a police force that still wears the French-style kepi hats and a few French street names, there is remarkably little evidence of nearly 300 years of French rule here.

Pastry Shop in Name Only

One restaurant is labeled a patisserie --pastry shop--but it serves nothing French, only Indian curries and Bengali sweets.

The stately old French government employees club, Cercle de Pondicherry, still functions, but only 40 of its 400 members speak French. As a result, the official language of the club, which has a padlocked library of decaying French books, is English. Still, most members prefer to speak Tamil, the regional language.

To the dismay of French officials, who are often frustrated that they cannot communicate with their own countrymen, English is much more important here than their beloved French.

Administrators at the French lycee, which has courses preparing students for study in French universities, say they have had to introduce advanced courses in English so that graduates will have a better chance of getting a job if they decide to stay in India.

Instead of becoming an island of French culture in Tamil Nadu state, Pondicherry has sunk into a state of lethargy and post-colonial decay.

"Here, you are witnessing the rotting of a typical colonial society into nepotism and clientism," said Guillaume de Vaudrey, a French scholar who is studying the vestiges of French culture here.

Two years ago, an investigation by a visiting French inspector general uncovered hundreds of cases of abuse of French government social aid, including instances in which Pondicherrians were using French medicine allowances to buy whisky, adopting children "for a few hours" to obtain increased support payments, selling French passports to Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka and faking blindness and other ailments to obtain disability payments.

The investigation was launched when a startled government clerk in Paris discovered that the 16,000 French Pondicherrians, a little more than 1% of the 1.5 million French citizens living overseas, were receiving more than 25% of all the money allocated for physically handicapped persons outside France.

'Permanent Subsidy'

What began as a colony of Indians who had fought in French wars or served the French government has evolved into a "community of permanent subsidy," said one diplomat, who spoke on condition that he not be identified by name.

"During the pay days," the diplomat said, "long lines form at dawn outside the old treasury building. These crowds attract many beggars who camp on the opposite sidewalk in numbers greater or lesser, depending on the size of the payment of that day, which they seem to know perfectly as to the frequency and volume. It all carries an element of the picturesque."

There are no signs that the French problems in Pondicherry will diminish. While France's population continues to decline, Pondicherry's French population has tripled since 1962 and is still booming.

Ironically, this also means that French Pondicherrians, as full-fledged French citizens, benefit from incentives established by the government in France to encourage couples to have more children. The incentives range from huge tax advantages to discounts on medicine.

Dowry Very Controversial

However, the biggest and most controversial factor in the expanding French population in Pondicherry is not the birthrate but rather the Indian dowry system, in which payments, often huge ones, are made by a prospective bride's family to the family of the prospective groom. Although it is technically illegal in India, the dowry system still flourishes at almost every level of Indian society.

In a land where matrimony is still negotiated between parents like a corporate merger, the blue passport of a French Pondicherrian is a more valuable dowry here than a box of gold ingots or a dozen television sets.

Under French law, marriage to a French citizen means that the new spouse can also easily become a French citizen. All of the couple's children also automatically become French citizens.

In Pondicherry, this citizenship is an extremely attractive prospect. For one thing, there are the obvious advantages of belonging to an advanced social welfare state while still living in an inexpensive Third World country.

Social Security Lacking

"Because of the huge masses of people in our country whom we have to feed first, we do not have adequate social security," journalist Balasubramaniam said.

Second, and perhaps more important, French Pondicherrians may travel in and out of India anytime they wish. This is a privilege not shared by other foreigners or even Indian citizens, who must obtain government permission for each departure and face severe restrictions on the amount of money that they may carry out.

The dowry system works both ways for the French Pondicherrian. For a bride, her French citizenship virtually eliminates the need for her family to pay any other dowry to marry an Indian citizen. Her passport is the dowry. For a groom, his French citizenship ensures a very large dowry from any non-French Indian family.

As a result, very few French Pondicherrian families insist on marrying other French.

Refuses to Betray France

"It is true that the Indians are trying to marry our daughters," said one exception, Edouard Abida, 59, president of the Pondicherry French Veterans Assn. and the father of three daughters. "But I would never do that. I would never betray la France ."

But the vast majority marry outside in the larger Indian community, converting their new spouses into French citizens and thus virtually doubling the French population with each new generation.

In addition, many of the several thousand Pondicherrians who left India earlier to live in France come back to India at the time of marriage to seek an Indian bride or groom.

The marriage-citizenship link sometimes has complicated results.

Balasubramaniam, for example, was born a French Pondicherrian. He married an Indian woman from Bangalore in neighboring Karnataka state. She also became a French citizen. The couple had a daughter who was automatically French.

Opted to Be Indian

In 1962, Balasubramaniam, who was serving at the time on an Indian peace committee for Southeast Asia, opted to become an Indian citizen. Because he made this choice, his daughter, as his dependent, also became Indian. However, his wife remained French and his two subsequent children also became French on the basis of his wife's citizenship.

If he chooses to, Balasubramaniam said over a drink at the Cercle Francais, he also could become French again because he is married to a French citizen; never mind that she is French only because she married him.

Most of the French Pondicherrians are aware that they have a good deal as beneficiaries of a French social welfare system--India does not even have a social security system.

"It is like El Dorado here," said Emile Paul, 73, an Indian who opted for French citizenship after serving for 20 years in the French army. "The whole of India is trying to come here."

Hasn't Worked Since 1956

Paul, who has 10 children, nine of whom are living in France, said that he has not had to work a single day since he retired in 1956.

He said his income from his army pension and his old-age pension totals about $20,000 a year, more than Cabinet ministers in the national government make.

Paul's only complaint is that the French government has to use francs to buy rupees with which to pay the benefits. He indicated that he and others would prefer to be paid in francs.

"We French are giving India foreign exchange and we are getting 'monkey money' back," he sniffed.

Despite their relatively affluent status, some the French Pondicherrian political leaders still insist that their people should be getting more help from the French government.

Antoine Soundiram, 55, is another French army veteran. Earlier this year, he was nominated to receive the honor of being a chevalier of the French Legion d'Honneur for his services to his country. Soundiram is one of two Pondicherrian elected members of the Superior Council of Overseas French, a body that advises the French government on behalf of the 1.5 million French expatriates.

De Gaulle 'My Patron'

Soundiram, who maintains a holiday home in the South of France, describes himself as a "French ambassador in India." He has an office on a side street where he receives a steady stream of visitors seeking some help in dealing with the French government. Next to his desk is a nearly life-sized painting of the late President Charles de Gaulle, whom he calls "my patron."

Soundiram was a central character in an electoral controversy involving votes from Pondicherry. Until French election laws were changed in 1981 by President Mitterrand, shortly after he was elected, votes from French citizens overseas could be applied to any electoral district of France.

Soundiram was known for his ability to gather large blocks of votes for the Union for French Democracy, the conservative party of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand's predecessor. So if a Giscard d'Estaing candidate appeared to be in trouble in an election, the Pondicherry votes were shunted into that district, sometimes turning the tide in his or her favor. In this way, one of the tiniest French communities had a larger impact on French politics than its size warranted.

Eliminated by Mitterrand

One of Socialist Party leader Mitterrand's first acts was to eliminate this practice, which had also served to mute government criticism of corruption and aid abuses in Pondicherry.

Stripped of some of his political power, Soundiram now lobbies for more government aid for French Pondicherrians, who he says are victims of discrimination both inside and outside France.

"We are not treated as the French are in France," he said in a recent interview.

He complained that French diplomats look down on the French Pondicherrians.

"They don't respect us."

A French diplomat complained that the French Pondicherrians treat the French treasury like a "dairy cow."

Told that, Soundiram protested: "We do not think of France as a dairy cow to be milked. Our pensions are modest, but the French Consulate people get much more. They live egotistically.

"It is true," Soundiram said, barking out his words like the French army sergeant that he once was, "that there have been some abuses in the pensions. But compared to the wealth of France, they are like a drop in the ocean."

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