The recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Sri Lanka is the first-ever visit by a French president to the island nation. However, the historical relations between the two countries can reach up to the early 18th century signifying the French routs in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly, France arose as one of the first nation-states in Europe in the 18th century under the orbit of its famous monarch Louis XIV, whose famous dictum “ I am the state” is a reflection of a strong sovereign. The initial contacts built by the French with Sri Lanka were mainly driven by French commercial and geopolitical interests in the Indian Ocean as the French were in a quest along with their European counterparts such as the Dutch and British to uphold the trade monopoly. The 18th-century Sri Lankan polity was in tatters as a result of many internal and external impacts, which resulted in the consolidation of Sinhalese powers to the kingdom of Kandy as the last sovereign of the Sinhalese kings. The power asymmetry that existed between the Europeans and the natives was the compelling factor that persuaded the latter to increase the relations with the European powers and it is in this backdrop that we should understand the French connection in Sri Lankan history.
Emboldened by the early success gained in forming a formidable presence in Pondicherry, India, the French turned to Sri Lanka for further expansion. The mission of the French envoy Delahe to meet King Rajasinghe II marked the advent of the French connection in Sri Lanka. However, Knox suggests that there was a considerable French presence in the court of Rajasinghe II even prior to the delegation of Delahe’s arrival. One cannot forget the role of French official Dule de Lanarole in the court of Rajasinghe II as a contemporary of Knox. The modern French people can be proud of the indomitable spirit and loyalty shown by some of their ancestors who lived in the Kandyan kingdom as officials to the Sinhalese kings. Pedro de Gascon was the first among the equals whose charisma and French charm secured him the position of First adigar in the court of King Weera Parakrama Narendrasinghe and the same charm that brought him to the pedestal sealed his fate when the king executed Gascon in 1715 for his alleged affair with the queen. It was just an instance showing how French love penetrated the Sinhalese polity.
By the end of the 18th century, the rivalry between the French and the British had reached the pinnacle of the hegemony of the Indian Ocean. In particular, the strategic importance of Trincomalee harbour became the prime reason for both nations to meddle with Sri Lanka as French Admiral Suffrein sailed to Trincomalee with a fleet in 1782. The naval battle between the British fleet and the French was a decisive and the first phase of the war over the Trincomalee ended in favour of the French fleet led by Admiral Suffrein. But the French luck was short-lived with the quick resistance of the British, which subdued the French ships in the sea. The battle of Trincomalee entered the annals of naval history as a crucial encounter that decided the geopolitical destiny of the Indian Ocean. Above all, the decorated personality of the French admiral Piree Suffren rose him to eminence as a unique military figure. Even after the French Revolution, the interest of the French towards Trincomalee harbour continued as its strategic relevance for the French in South India. The letter correspondence between the French and Rajaderajasinghe, which continued until British captured Pondicherry provides the gravity of French interest in the island.
French involvement in Sri Lanka during the 19th century was different from the political ambitions that pervaded the 18th century. The political decline of France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars largely impacted its external affairs in the Indian Ocean. In that context, the transformation of French connection with Sri Lanka under the British colonial rule was mainly confined to religious activism of the French missionaries and their presence was a consoling factor for the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka as Catholicism was challenged by the newly arrived Protestant missionaries such as CMS. The bonhomie of French Jesuits who lived in colonial Ceylon was revered by the natives in the north and the southern provinces of the island as they patronised many Catholic educational institutions. The French political expectations towards Sri Lanka began to ebb before the British consolidation of power by the end of the 18th century, but French nationals continued their rapport with the island uninterruptedly. Especially, one cannot forget French officers namely Bertolosi and Yuldin de Johnwil as early pioneers of initiating an authentic study of Sri Lanka culture, even before the British took their interest by establishing Royal Asiatic Society in 1845.
The current French interest in South Asia has been shaped by its relations with India, which is fairly a progressive one under the Modi government. Also, it should be noted that France continues her role as one of the most trusted defence partners to India in selling the famous Mirage aircraft. Propelled by the recent geopolitical importance of Indo-Pacific, the French move in South Asia is a supportive action upon the shared objectives of both Indo-US strategies in countering China’s robust rise in the region.
The question that comes to the fore is what challenges lie before France’s alacrity in Sri Lanka, renewed after the sudden visit of Macron. From a realistic point, Sri Lanka’s international portrayal haunted by its civil war memories is a critical factor in enhancing the Franco-Lankan relations in these challenging times. It is important to remember that France was one of the key states that voted against Sri Lanka in the Geneva UN Human Rights Council. Secondly, the policymakers in Sri Lanka should impede themselves in welcoming any French-Indo partnership to confront China in the Indian Ocean as subsequent results can jeopardise Sri Lanka, where the Chinese influence remains pivotal. The history of early encounters of the French with the island nations has shown how geopolitical currents carved their engagement and the same trajectories seem to have brought the French back to Sri Lanka.
Punsara Amarasinghe is post doctoral researcher affiliated to the Institute of Law, Politics and Development at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa