PONDICHERRY, India — 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 \o7 mal de tete \f7 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 \o7 lycee\f7 , 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 \o7 kepi\f7 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 \o7 patisserie\f7 --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.