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Warm welcome for Hu Jintao in France

Vaiju Naravane

Contracts worth billions of euros likely to be signed

— PHOTO: AP

Warm welcome: French President Nicolas Sarkozy (right) welcomes his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Paris on Thursday.

Paris: French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla themselves went to the airport to receive Chinese President Hu Jintao — a rare honour — as Paris rolled out the red carpet for a three-day visit that is expected to culminate in several lucrative contracts for French companies including the sale of EPR nuclear reactors by nuclear giant Areva.

The Elysee palace underlined the importance France accords to this visit saying Mr. Sarkozy's presence at the airport was an “exceptional” gesture. Paris hopes to thus bury the hatchet and close the chapter of its strained relations with Beijing caused by the demonstrations in Paris when the Olympic flame passed through the French capital enroute to the Beijing games and the 2008 handshake between Mr. Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama albeit on Polish soil. Unlike Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama, no French President to date has risked the wrath of Beijing by officially inviting the Tibetan leader.

The first meeting between Presidents Hu Jintao and Sarkozy is scheduled for Thursday afternoon. This will be followed by a “signing session” for commercial contracts the value of which has been described as “by far the most important ever, either during visits by Chinese leaders to Europe or European leaders to China”. In 2007, when Mr. Sarkozy visited Beijing, French companies netted contracts that exceeded $20 billions. The nuclear giant Areva and aircraft manufacturer Airbus are expected to be the major beneficiaries during this visit too.

The China Southern airline has announced its intention of buying 36 Airbus planes valued at €2.6 billions. China will also be purchasing two more EPR nuclear reactors in addition to the two it has already bought (estimated cost €10 billions). And Areva is likely to sell another €3 billions worth of uranium to the Chinese utility CGNPC. The Franco-American telecom company Alcatel-Lucent will sign three contracts with China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom worth €2 billions.

Programme

The first day's programme will be topped by a formal dinner with toasts which will provide the only public occasion for the two leaders to speak of politics or policy since there will be no press conference.

This decision to keep public discourse to a minimum has been sharply criticised by several NGOs and human rights organisations, many of which staged demonstrations in Paris on Thursday. They accuse Mr. Sarkozy of deliberately omitting to send a message of congratulations to this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, dissident Liu Xiaobao, imprisoned since 2009.

Touchy subject

The Sarkozys will host President Hu Jintao and his wife at a dinner in the Riviera city of Nice where the two leaders are expected to discuss the upcoming G 20 summit and the touchy subject of the Chinese currency, the Yuan, which has become something of a tussle between Washington and Beijing.

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