France wants stake in Russia gas giant

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MOSCOW, Oct 10 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy said today that French investors wanted a stake in Russia's Gazprom gas giant as part of efforts to bolster sensitive energy ties between Russia and Europe.

Speaking after a Kremlin meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sarkozy, on his first visit to Russia as president, said the two men had also narrowed their differences on how to handle Iran's nuclear ambitions.

''I believe that there is a certain convergence of our opinions (on Iran),'' Sarkozy told reporters as he stood alongside Putin, who next week will travel to Tehran for talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But the French leader gave no specifics while Putin repeated his view there was no evidence Iran was developing a nuclear weapon, underlining the differences that still exist between Russia and Western powers.

On energy, both leaders said they wanted deeper partnership. Many European leaders are concerned about their energy dependence on Russia, which supplies a quarter of Europe's gas.

They want greater access for their firms to Russia's tightly-controlled energy sector, including gas export monopoly Gazprom. Russia, for its part, complains its firms are blocked from making big acquisitions in Europe.

''France's policy is transparency and reciprocity,'' Sarkozy told reporters.

''It's quite normal that our Russian friends should want to enter the capital of a certain number of French companies and that the opposite should be true as well.'' ''I have told President Putin of the readiness of French investors to enter the capital of big Russian companies, for example Gazprom,'' he added, pointing out that Russia had invested in European aerospace group EADS.

Putin responded by saying it was ''absolutely honest, transparent (and) mutually acceptable,'' for Russian and European firms to exchange stakes.

''NO LESSONS'' Putin has said in the past the state will retain a controlling stake in strategic sectors, including energy, while foreign investors have had their stakes squeezed in several Russian energy projects.

The only big foreign investor in state-controlled Gazprom is Germany's E.ON with a direct stake of six percent, while Italian energy group ENI has 20 per cent stake in Gazprom's oil arm Gazprom Neft.

Sarkozy confirmed that he would meet representatives of human rights group Memorial later today, a pointed reminder of European concerns about Russia's right record.

But he played that event down, saying he was not planning ''to teach lessons to anyone.'' With differences on Iran, Kosovo and human rights, Sarkozy's trip to Russia is his trickiest foreign visit to date.

In their turn, Russian officials are concerned that Sarkozy will be a more awkward partner than Jacques Chirac, his predecessor as French president.

Today, Sarkozy addressed Putin in the familiar ''tu'' form and called him ''Dear Vladimir''. The Russian leader though stuck to the more formal ''vous'' form and did not once use Sarkozy's first name in front of reporters.

Reuters PD DB1828

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