LYON: Chinese President Xi Jinping was set Wednesday to sign a series of major business deals on the second day of a lavish state visit to France.
Xi is to hold talks with French counterpart Francois Hollande, after which a raft of trade agreements are expected to be announced.
The three-day visit, which comes on the 50th year of full diplomatic ties, ends with a concert Thursday at the Versailles palace, built by Louis XIV and a symbol of absolute monarchy that ended with the 1789 French revolution.
Xi is on his first-ever European tour and after visiting The Netherlands and France will head to Germany and Belgium.
Xi and his glamorous singer wife Peng Liyuan began the French leg of their trip in the eastern city of Lyon, a former silk centre that forged enduring links with China from the 16th century.
“My visit to France… will allow me to work with President Francois Hollande… to sum up 50 years of Sino-French relations and to plan the future together,” Xi said at an official dinner.
On Wednesday, the couple visited bioMerieux, a French diagnostics firm run by a prominent Lyon business dynasty that has old trade links with China.
“In the near future, the Chinese health sector will greatly develop and this will be in the interest of the Chinese people and the whole world,” Xi said.
He then visited the city’s Franco-Chinese Institute before leaving for Paris to meet the French president.
France lags behind some European neighbours, especially Germany, in trade and investment links with China.
– Major deals on the cards –
It has worked hard to catch up and deals in the aviation, nuclear, space, agriculture and urban development sectors are expected to be unveiled during Xi’s trip.
Details have been closely guarded by both sides. The only deal certain to be signed is one that will see Chinese firm Dongfeng take a stake in troubled French auto giant Peugeot.
An agreement on the joint construction of civilian helicopters between Airbus Helicopters and China is also expected.
When Hollande visited China in April last year, Xi welcomed him with a pledge to buy 60 Airbus planes and there could be more to come.
Luc Oursel, head of French nuclear giant Areva, last week said he hoped that several agreements would be signed, as negotiations continue on the construction in China of a nuclear waste reprocessing plant.
France’s finance ministry is also organising an economic forum on Thursday that will gather together about 400 businesses.
“Our economic and trade relationship with China is marked by a strong imbalance,” the French foreign ministry said, pointing to a trade deficit of 25.8 billion euros ($35.7 billion) last year between the two countries.
At the end of 2012, France’s total investments in China came to 16.7 billion euros, four times more than China’s in France.
“Investments are welcome in France and we are mobilised to facilitate them,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Xi.
The trip is also due to touch on political matters as the crisis in Ukraine dominates the international agenda.
Xi is also scheduled to make a major speech in Paris highlighting historical bonds such as the experiences of Communist Party luminaries Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, who both studied in France.
Xi’s wife Peng, China’s first prominent First Lady, is also a Francophile.
– Tibetan protests due –
And while she no longer has a French counterpart after Hollande split from his partner Valerie Trierweiler, Peng has her own itinerary planned that will see her named special UNESCO envoy for the promotion of women’s education.
The question of human rights in China will have an impact on the visit amid an ongoing, government-backed crackdown on dissent, with Tibetan exiles planning a big rally in Paris on Thursday.
Since 2009 about 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in China in protests against the authorities, denouncing what they say is an erosion of their religious freedoms and culture and discrimination by the country’s Han majority.