HAVANA (AFP) - Francois Hollande arrived in Havana late on Sunday, the first French president to visit Cuba in more than a century, cementing Paris' lead in the EU rapprochement with the communist island.
Hollande is also the first Western leader to visit Cuba since a surprise announcement in December by Havana and Washington that the former Cold War foes would seek to normalise relations after half a century of bad blood.
Hollande arrived at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport and was greeted by Cuba's Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra.
His visit is aimed at boosting French and European Union interests in Cuba, which has undergone gradual economic and social reforms under Castro. France is seeking to "be the first among European nations, and the first among Western nations, to be able to say to the Cubans that we will be at their side if they decide themselves to take needed steps toward opening up," Hollande told reporters before leaving for Havana.
The French president said the easing of a decades-long economic embargo by the United States will help Cuba's cash-strapped economy.
"Cuba wants to move on to a new phase, a new period, a new time for this island that was victim of an embargo," Hollande said on a stop in Guadeloupe, referring to the US sanctions in place since 1962.
The French leader said removing the embargo was key to opening Cuba up to the rest of the world, adding that despite the move toward thawing relations with Washington, economic barriers remain.
"There are still a lot of measures in place that block trade and business," Hollande said.
The French president is due to meet with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro on Monday and his office has said he is available to meet with revolutionary icon Fidel Castro as well. However, Havana has not confirmed that a meeting between Hollande and Fidel Castro will take place.
The visit follows a meeting on Sunday between Raul Castro and Pope Francis at the Vatican, where the Cuban leader thanked the pontiff for his role in brokering the historic détente between Havana and Washington.
- Row over rights -
The European Union suspended relations with Cuba in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists, but it opened talks to restore ties in April 2014, aiming to persuade Havana to improve its rights record. It was under the French presidency of the EU in 2008 that political dialogue was first resumed between Brussels and Havana.
"France has always been a leader in the European Union. The fact that the French president is coming shows France's very important role in the dialogue between Cuba and the European Union," Eduardo Perera from the University of Havana told AFP.
France, which has made its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean a foreign policy priority, has along with the Netherlands been a strong supporter of the normalisation of ties between Cuba and the 28-member European bloc.
Europe's rapprochement with Cuba began before the December announcement on Cuba-US relations. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made a brief stopover to Cuba in April 2014, the first visit to the island by France's top diplomat in three decades.
Trade between France and Cuba is modest, worth around US$388 million (S$516 million) a year, with the balance solidly in France's favour. French officials recognise the importance of the EU positioning itself politically and economically for when the US embargo is eventually lifted.