China's Xi talks culture in France but business prevails

PARIS (AFP) - After a day devoted to multi-billion-dollar business deals, Chinese leader Xi Jinping trained his sights on culture and history Thursday on the last day of his lavish visit to France.

Yet business was still the talk of the day at an economic forum on the margins of the three-day state visit, as French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici called for more Chinese investment in France in a bid to boost jobs and growth.

"Today, the lion has woken up, and it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised," Mr Xi said in a final speech after a trip to the UNESCO headquarters, referring to Napoleon's description of China as a sleeping lion.

French authorities have bent over backwards to woo Mr Xi, giving the Chinese president and his wife Peng Liyuan VIP treatment as the power couple visit France on the 50th anniversary of full diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Road blocks slowed traffic in parts of the French capital and transport authorities closed many subway stations Thursday to avoid any security slips or unwelcome protests against China's much-decried human rights record.

French companies are keen to get a bite of the huge Chinese market and Paris also wants investment from the fast-growing Middle Kingdom to flow in.

At the economic forum on Thursday, which took place after Mr Xi and his French counterpart Francois Hollande oversaw the signing of 50 deals worth 18 billion euros (S$31 billion), some 500 businesses met as well as Chinese and French ministers.

Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng called on Paris "to further facilitate Chinese investors setting up (in France) on a legal level", referring to the mammoth red tape that businesses have to go through in France.

He said that in exchange, "China is ready to import more French products" to re-balance trade between the two countries, which is heavily tilted towards China.

Last year, France had a trade deficit with China worth 25.8 billion euros, and Mr Moscovici pointed out that French investment in China was four times higher than Chinese investments in France.

"Chinese investments are decisive for us, we are determined to attract them when they create jobs," he said.

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.

The forum was expected to generate many small-scale deals, a day after the multi-billion-dollar contracts signed at the presidency made headlines.

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

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 agreements in areas as varied as the nuclear, financial and automotive sectors.