The French connection: Increasing number of French students are heading to south India CHENNAI: When the merchants of Rouen set sail from France for the eastern seas in the 16th century, they had only one aim to have their share in the most happening trading post in the world. India still beckons the French, but the new wave of visitors, mostly students, seems to prefer the balmy south India to the shores of Surat. Chennai, Vellore, Puducherry and other south Indian cities are increasingly featuring in the career plans of students from France. Last year, eight students from various French universities came to the University of Madras on exchange programmes. The number has gone up to 26 in the current (2010-11) academic year, say university officials. "The exchange programme has been on for the past five years. The demand is growing and this year students from around 14 French universities wanted to come down," says Chitra Krishnan, head of the French department, University of Madras. It is the same scene in IIT-Madras, says an official with the institute's international relations office. "This year there are more than 10 students," says the official. Floriane Bollazi, a 23-year-old economics student from the University of Lyon, chose Chennai as she wanted to experience a different culture. "Tamil Nadu is more traditional than highly westernised places like Delhi. In Chennai, I get to learn about Dravidian culture and also pursue my course," says Bollazi, who arrived in July 2010. Reputed technical education institutions such as IIT-M, Anna University, Jawaharlal Institute of Post-graduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) and Vellore Institute of Technology are also major draws. "I got an internship in Bangalore partly because I did one semester at IIT-M," says Clement Quertelet, 23, an engineering student from Paris. IIT-M has agreements with 12 French higher education institutions, such as Polytechnic Schools and Central Schools. A big chunk of the exchange programmes are organised by a Franco-Indian academic consortium formed in 2008 by associations of universities in both the countries. Once Conference des Presidents d universities' and conference des directeurs des ecoles d ingenieurs francaises' signed agreements with the Association of Indian Universities, several partner institutions formed tie-ups. For instance, the University of Technological and Health Sciences in Grenoble has exchange programmes with the Delhi University and Anna University in nanoscience and nanotechnology (M Sc). The latest such agreement was signed between seven IITs and Paris-Tech (a consortium of Grandes Ecoles) when President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Indian visiting last year. Students come to south India for studying specific areas in medicine too, says an official with the French consulate in Puducherry. "Many prefer JIPMER in Puducherry so they can study tropical diseases as there is a threat of these infections making a comeback in Europe due to global warming," he says. The other group that heads down south consists of students and researchers of social issues. Barbara S, a political science student from Lyon, found southern India to be the perfect place for her research on refugees. "I found that Tamil Nadu has a number of refugee camps," she says. The 24-year-old, who arrived in August 2010, is now doing a post-graduate degree in defence and strategic studies at the University of Madras. She has also landed an internship with an organisation that works for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. "I got my first field-level work experience here," she says. "It will really help my career." Though most students say that their Indian sojourns would look good on their resumes and help them land jobs easily, there are a few complaints too. Jeremie Berlioux, a 21-year-old political science student, says he did not have much choice when it came to selecting universities under the exchange programme. Quertelet had only two places IIT-M and Vellore Institute of Technology to choose from. Also, many face difficulties finding accommodation. Bolazzi says, "It was hard to find a flat because owners didn't want non-Indians or non-Tamils." She finally found a place but is yet to feel at home. These problems have not dampened their enthusiasm for the place. For many, it is an opportunity to brush up on their English and figure out new areas of economic growth, says the consular official. "And they prefer south India as there is not much of a law and order problem that might interfere with their tight schedules," he adds.