China, France sign major energy, aviation deals

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France and China signed major industrial deals worth 20 billion dollars Thursday at the start of a lavish state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, cementing previously strained ties.

The signings kicked off a three-day visit by Hu that France hopes will result in a massive boost to its high-tech manufacturing exports and get China onside during the upcoming French presidency of the G20 power grouping.

China's deputy foreign minister Fu Ying revealed the scale of the deals to reporters after talks between the two presidents and the signing ceremony at the Elysee Palace, where a state dinner was laid on for Hu on Thursday evening.

"The visit is going very well. We have had some great successes," Fu told reporters before the meal. "The Chinese delegation is totally satisfied and has high hopes for future discussions."

Separately announcing details of the contracts, Sarkozy's office said European planemaker Airbus struck a deal to supply 102 airliners to Chinese firms at a cost of 14 billion dollars (around 10 billion euros).

Meanwhile, French nuclear giant Areva signed a contract to supply 3.5 billion dollars' worth of uranium to Chinese power firm CNGPC, Areva chief Anne Lauvergeon told reporters.

She added that Areva had also signed a contract to build a uranium treatment plant in China, but did not cite the amount.

A senior presidential aide told reporters after the signing: "France and China ... are going to develop an unprecedented partnership in nuclear energy."

French energy giant Total meanwhile said it was planning to invest two to three billion euros in a Chinese petrochemical plant.

Chinese businesses were due to sign more contracts on Friday at the headquarters of French business asssociation Medef, French presidential officials said.

France and China have had tense diplomatic ties in recent years, notably over French meetings with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, but they maintain key economic ties and relations have warmed since 2009.

"China should not be seen as a threat, but an opportunity," Sarkozy said ahead of Hu's arrival.

Activists and the Socialist opposition complain France has kept human rights off the menu for the visit, a tense encounter given the high economic stakes and Sarkozy's preparation for his G20 presidency.

They will toast each other at the state dinner on Thursday evening -- the only official public statements scheduled by the two.

They will not hold a joint news conference, 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.

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.

Fu dismissed the issue, telling reporters: "It's not a subject for discussion between China and France. Liu broke the law and was convicted."

Around 200 activists, many of them waving the banners of Tibet and Xinxiang -- Chinese provinces with separatist leanings -- gathered by the Eiffel Tower to demand that France raise the rights issue during the visit.

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 leadership of the Group of 20 major and emerging economies next week.

On Friday, Hu is due to visit a war memorial at Paris's 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 Hu will visit a nearby Schneider Electric factory on Saturday before heading on to Portugal.

© 2010 AFP

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