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France's Chirac prepares swansong trip to China

Written by: Staff
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PARIS, Oct 24: French President Jacques Chirac visits China this week on perhaps the last major foreign trip of his mandate, hoping to wrap up a decade of steadily warming ties with a breakthrough on several elusive deals for French firms.

Chirac will visit Beijing and the inland industrial city of Wuhan, a target for French investment, during a four-day state visit starting tomorrow that will include talks with President Hu Jintao on the economy, trade and global tension over nuclear programmes in North Korea and Iran.

Chirac will stress the importance of international unity on United Nations moves to punish Pyongyang for conducting a nuclear test as well as efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, French diplomats said.

''If the international community acts together effectively on this question (North Korea), it is an important message for the rest of the world,'' a diplomat said, asking not to be named.

If not, this would send ''an awkward counter-message affecting other matters on the table (like Iran),'' he added.

Chirac, 73, has not yet said if he will run for a third term next April but his visit to China is widely seen as a swansong designed to brush up his legacy abroad as he strives to inject fresh vigour into the final stretch of his mandate at home.

''President Chirac is convinced that a part of France's place and influence in the world will depend on its ability to build an especially strong relationship with China,'' French presidential spokesman Jerome Bonnafont said yesterday.

Chirac hailed China as a ''natural trade partner'' and dismissed European fears of its economic might when he returned two years ago from his last visit, clutching 4 billion euros of air, rail and energy deals.

But France still lags behind Germany with a Chinese market share of 1.4 percent against 4.0 percent for Europe's largest economy, according to official French figures.

''I am not satisfied by our low market share and the resulting imbalance in our trade ties,'' Chirac told Xinhua news agency before his trip.

French officials and analysts played down the prospect of a major haul of new contracts this time as French firms wait for obstacles to be lifted on several important contracts contested with US rivals.

Chirac's entourage will nonetheless include some 30 business chiefs including the heads of planemaker Airbus, which hopes to win orders on the trip, and nuclear reactor maker Areva, which is battling US rival Westinghouse for an 8 billion dollar order for new-generation plants. BANKING DEAL? The visit is also seen as a last-ditch opportunity for France's Societe Generale to snatch a 3 billion dollar banking deal from US rival Citigroup, whose consortium is reported to be ahead in negotiations to buy debt-ridden Guangdong Bank.

French-based Airbus is waiting for final approval for plans to build its first offshore assembly plant in the eastern city Tianjin, with the first A320-family single-aisle jets expected to roll off its production lines from 2008.

Production delays have raised doubts over whether A380 superjumbos ordered by China will be delivered in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- an embarrassing setback compounded by Chirac's failure to win the 2012 Olympics for Paris.

The French engineering firm Alstom will try to make progress on a bid to build a high-speed railway between Wuhan and Guangzhou, but a deal is not expected immediately. It will however sign contracts to supply China with rolling stock.

The European Union will urge China this week to open its economy further to foreign investment and address what it sees as problems caused by Beijing's emergence as a trade superpower.

For its part, Beijing is irked by EU measures backed by France to impose anti-dumping duties on what Brussels says are underpriced Chinese exports, and firmly rejects efforts to link trade negotiations with human rights.

China has not ruled out taking the EU to court in its first ever challenge at the World Trade Organisation over duties on leather shoe imports from China, which it says are unjustified.

China is also at odds with Europe over an arms trade embargo imposed after hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed in and near Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, though france is part of an EU minority now backing an end to the ban.

''Some issues might top the agenda of the talks in terms of economy and trade, such as China's exports to Europe and Europe's anti-dumping practice to China,'' said Chinese scholar Xing Hua from the China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank of China's Foreign Ministry.

''Politically, China might also raise the issues about the lifting of the arms embargo by Europe.'' Officials said Chirac planned to raise individual human rights cases as well as Western objections to China's general record on liberties, but it was not clear whether he planned to do so in face to face meetings with Hu Jintao.

REUTERS

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