- Francois Hollande said India favoured Anil Ambani for Rafale deal
- Statement triggered huge row in India, attacks on government
- France says former president should not have made the comments
The French government said on Sunday it feared damage to its relations with India after former president Francois Hollande stirred a massive controversy with his statements on the multi-billion-dollar Rafale fighter jet deal.
Mr Hollande, who left office in May last year, said Friday that French jet manufacturer Dassault Aviation had been given no choice about its local partner in a 2016 deal with India.
The Narendra Modi government agreed to buy 36 Rafale jets from Dassault, which announced afterwards it was partnering for the project with billionaire Anil Ambani rather than the public defence conglomerate HAL.
Mr Hollande's announcement that Dassault "did not have a say in it" added fuel to claims from the opposition that the New Delhi government had intervened to help Mr Ambani.
"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 on Sunday about Mr 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.
Mr Hollande made the comments to defend himself from accusations of a conflict of interest because Mr Ambani's Reliance conglomerate had partially financed a film produced by his partner, 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.
Mr Hollande's comments were front-page news in the newspapers on Saturday and it was the top trending topic on Twitter.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi attacked the government over the revelation. "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.
(With inputs from AFP)