France's Hollande juggles trade and rights in Moscow

Wed Feb 27, 2013 8:20am EST
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By Julien Ponthus

PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande will aim to balance French concerns over Russia's human rights record with a push to boost trade ties during a debut Moscow visit on Thursday that could prove a diplomatic obstacle course.

An encounter in Paris last June between the newly-elected Socialist Hollande and Russia's Vladimir Putin bristled with tension, unlike the cozy meetings between Putin and Hollande's conservative predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.

Aides on both sides want to avoid the full-frontal clash on rights that marked German Chancellor Angela Merkel's trip to Moscow last year, when she accused Moscow of stifling dissent.

Moreover, with the French economy edging closer to recession and domestic demand moribund, Hollande needs all the outside help he can get to kickstart growth, and will be pushing for Russian business to step up investment in France.

Yet everything from Moscow's support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in defiance of the West to Putin's very public relish at actor Gerard Depardieu's decision to take Russian nationality for tax reasons means the scope for misunderstandings is great.

"You can get on with someone without loving them," veteran Russia specialist Helene Carrere d'Encausse said of the strained pragmatism she saw defining the visit, whose high-point is an 1100 GMT joint news conference with Hollande and Putin on.

Hollande aides insist that, aside from Syria, the positions of Paris and Moscow converge in several areas - notably on Mali, where Russia has backed a U.N. resolution which is a key part of French efforts to extricate its soldiers and put African troops in the front line against al Qaeda allies.

RIGHTS RECORD   Continued...

France's President Francois Hollande delivers his speech during an awards ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Bertrand Langlois/Pool