China, France sign $31 billion worth of deals on Xi visit

French President Francois Hollande (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walk near the conductor of an orchestra before the State dinner held at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
French President Francois Hollande (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walk near the conductor of an orchestra before the State dinner held at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Beijing and Paris signed scores of deals Wednesday worth 18 billion euros (S$31.4 billion) on the second day of a lavish state visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in what President Francois Hollande said would bring much-needed growth.

Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan have been given VIP treatment on a nostalgia-tinted trip to France marking the 50th year of full diplomatic ties between the two countries - a visit due to culminate with a concert at the Versailles chateau on Thursday.

The power couple kicked off their trip in the eastern city of Lyon on Tuesday, and a day later travelled up to Paris where Mr Xi met with his counterpart Mr Hollande and signed the deals.

"Eighteen billion euros of contracts - that is jobs, growth and, most of all, significant prospects for the coming years," Mr Hollande said during a joint press declaration with the Chinese president.

By far the biggest deal was a Chinese order for 70 Airbus planes worth more than US$10 billion.

The order covers the purchase of 43 mid-range A320 planes and 27 long-haul A330s, the European aviation giant said.

China had already announced its intention to purchase the planes but subsequently froze the order due to a row over EU plans to impose a carbon emissions levy on airlines.

This forced Airbus to take the 70 planes off its order book, so Wednesday's contract is considered a new purchase.

Airbus Helicopters and China's Avicopter also announced a deal to jointly produce 1,000 civilian helicopters over 20 years.

Altogether, the two countries signed 50 agreements in areas as varied as the nuclear, financial and automotive sectors. France lags behind some European neighbours, especially Germany, in trade and investment links with fast-growing China.

Last year, France had a trade deficit with China worth 25.8 billion euros, and on Wednesday, Mr Hollande told Mr Xi that Paris had a "duty... to re-balance trade between our two countries".

His comments came as the number of jobless in France surged by 0.9 per cent in February to a new record of 3.34 million, in what is likely to increase the deep unpopularity of Hollande's government.

On the diplomatic front, Mr Hollande said he "appreciated" China's stance on Ukraine, after Beijing lodged a rare abstention on a UN Security Council resolution condemning a Moscow-backed secession referendum in Crimea, rather than vetoing it along with ally Russia.

"We do not want the 21st century to be the century of annexations and separatism," he said.

The French president also called on China to host the G20.

The Chinese leader is on his first-ever European tour and after visiting The Netherlands and France will head to Germany and Belgium.

Mr Xi and his wife Ms Peng chose to begin the French leg of their trip in Lyon, a former silk centre that forged enduring links with China from the 16th century.

The couple were treated to a lavish dinner at city hall, and sampled regional wine and delicacies such as saucisson and Beaufort cheese.

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," Mr Xi said.

He then visited the city's Franco-Chinese Institute before leaving for Paris to meet the French president.

Mr Xi is scheduled to make a major speech in Paris Thursday highlighting historical bonds such as the experiences of Communist Party luminaries Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, who both studied in France.

His wife ms Peng, China's first prominent First Lady and a famous singer, is also a Francophile.

And while she no longer has a French counterpart after Mr Hollande split from his partner Valerie Trierweiler, Ms Peng has her own activities planned that will see her named special UNESCO envoy for the promotion of women's education.

The question of human rights in China was ever-present 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.

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