China's Hu heads to France for state visit
Chinese President Hu Jintao jets into Paris Thursday for a three-day state visit during which France hopes to clinch billions of dollars in deals for nuclear, aviation and energy technology.
Hu is due to touch down with his wife Liu Yongqing in the early afternoon at Paris's Orly airport where he will be met by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and receive military honours.
Sarkozy and Hu hold their first round of bilateral talks at the Elysee Palace later in the day and will sign "lots of contracts, large and small" before a full state dinner, a French presidential official said.
"China should not be seen as a threat, but an opportunity," Sarkozy said, shortly before he was due to head to the airport.
"We are going to sign very large contracts, we're going to begin very important discussions on the eve of France's taking on the presidency of the G20. It's a very big deal," he said.
The deals are expected to include a purchase by China of Airbus aircraft, nuclear energy deals for French company Areva and a contract between French insurance firm Axa and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
The total value of the deals "will be far greater than during any previous visit by European leaders to Beijing," the presidential official said, declining to predict the precise figure before the leaders met.
Franco-American telecoms giant Alcatel-Lucent scooped the first contracts, announcing deals with three Chinese operators -- China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom -- worth a total 1.17 billion euros (1.66 million dollars).
Meanwhile, a new 500-million-euro Franco-Chinese business district in Chateauroux, central France is due to create 4,000 jobs, most of them in France, when it opens in 2012, local authorities announced Thursday.
During Sarkozy's first state visit to China in November 2007, French companies signed contracts worth 20 billion euros (28 billion dollars).
Activists and the Socialist opposition complain France is keeping human rights off the menu for the visit, a delicate encounter given the economic stakes and Sarkozy's preparation for his presidency of the G20 group of powers.
The leaders will toast each other at the state dinner on Thursday evening -- the only official public statements scheduled by the two.
They have not scheduled a joint news conference during the visit, an exceptional departure from state visit procedures that has been criticised by campaigners who want Hu to be pressed on the issue of human rights.
"When you host someone, you need to receive them well, and it's not through criticising people that you move things forward, it's by trying to understand them," Sarkozy insisted.
The visit comes at a delicate moment for Sarkozy, who wants to bring China on board with plans for global currency reform when France takes over the presidency of the Group of 20 power club next week.
Campaigners criticised Sarkozy for not speaking out in favour of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, whose Nobel Peace Prize enraged Beijing when it was announced last month.
It is the Chinese leader's first official foreign trip since the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu the prize.
On Friday, Hu is due to meet business leaders for more contracts, visit a war memorial at Paris' Arc de Triomphe and meet with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon before flying south to the Riviera city of Nice.
There he and Sarkozy are due to hold further bilateral talks and dine at a restaurant on Friday evening. Hu will visit a nearby Schneider Electric factory on Saturday before flying on to Portugal, the Elysee official said.
France and China have had tense diplomatic relations in recent years, notably over French meetings with the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, but they maintain important economic ties and relations have warmed since 2009.
On his second state visit to Beijing in April, Sarkozy hailed China as a "strategic partner" and Hu has made warm comments about France in the run-up to this week's visit.
© 2010 AFP