Hollande plans first ever visit by French president to Cuba
President Francois Holland will make the first ever visit by a French head of state to Cuba in May in the latest sign of a thaw between the isolated communist nation and Europe and the United States.
The visit, announced Tuesday, was expected to be the first by a Western leader to the Caribbean island since the United States and Cuba announced a historic rapprochement on December 17.
Hollande's "visit to Cuba on May 11 will constitute the first visit by a French head of state to this country," the presidency said in a statement in Paris.
Meanwhile, the European Union and the communist regime will resume negotiations Wednesday and Thursday in Havana aimed at normalising ties.
Diplomatic relations between the European Union and Cuba were suspended in 2003 due to a row over Havana's human rights record. However, members of 28-nation bloc unanimously approved in 2014 the opening of discussions aimed at achieving an "agreement on political dialogue and cooperation."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made a brief stopover to Cuba in 2014, which was the first visit by France's top diplomat to the island in three decades.
"This is the first time in 31 years that the head of French diplomacy is on an official trip to Cuba," Fabius told reporters as he spoke of revitalising ties with the Americas' only remaining fully communist nation.
"France wants to strengthen its ties with all of South America and, in this context, we wanted relations to be strengthened in particular with Cuba," he added.
Trade between France and Cuba is modest, worth around $388 million (347 million euros) a year, with the balance solidly in France's favour.
As Cuba and the United States continue to progress in restarting their ties, they hope to agree in the coming months on reopening embassies in each others' capitals and appointing full-fledged ambassadors.
Currently they operate through their so-called interests sections in Havana and Washington.
US President Barack Obama has also called on the US Congress to lift the decades-old biting economic embargo of Cuba.
But some US lawmakers -- as well as parts of the Cuban exile community based in Florida -- remain wary of the diplomatic thaw, arguing Obama has failed to secure guarantees on better respect for human rights.
As part of Hollande's trip he is also to make stops on the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
During the visit to Martinique the French leader will preside over a regional summit on climate change.
© 2015 AFP