Sarkozy to push Med union plans on Morocco visit

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MARRAKESH, Morocco, Oct 22 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Morocco today for a three-day visit to flesh out his idea of a Mediterranean union, lobby for French business and try to salvage a 1.5-billion dollar fighter plane deal.

Relations with Morocco got off to a shaky start when Sarkozy chose its regional rival Algeria for his first visit outside Europe after his election earlier this year.

Morocco responded by scrapping the Moroccan leg of his North African tour, a setback for a president who had already made few friends in Africa with his hardline position on immigration.

However, reconciliation was in the air today as the allies prepared to unveil some 15 agreements in areas such as high-speed trains, military equipment and nuclear power, industry and political sources said.

Morocco's media went into overdrive to praise relations with France, with state news agency MAP writing of an ''exceptional mutual confidence and a regular and dense dialogue''.

''Franco-Moroccan friendship is something permanent,'' said establishment newspaper Le Matin du Sahara in an editorial.

King Mohammed greeted the French president on his arrival in Marrakesh. The two were due to hold talks at the royal palace nearby and sign a series of conventions and economic accords.

Sarkozy was accompanied by a delegation of 70 French business leaders. His trip aims to bolster France's strong commercial presence in its former colony as US and Chinese investors make an unprecedented push into Africa.

France remains Morocco's main export destination, top supplier of imported goods and biggest foreign investor. Last month, French car manufacturer Renault unveiled plans to build its biggest African plant near Tangier in Morocco's north.

French companies including Alstom were expected to sign deals for a high-speed rail link from Tangier to the southern tourist city of Marrakesh, a project worth about 3 billion euros (4.29 billion dollar), a French government source said.

REUTERS AE RAI2355

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