- Associated Press - Thursday, November 4, 2010

PARIS | French President Nicolas Sarkozy wooed China’s visiting leader Thursday with a red-carpet welcome and Chinese flags fluttering in the streets of Paris. In return, France expects billions in contracts for airplanes and energy.

The three-day state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao marks a dramatic turnaround from the tense ties of two years ago, when Mr. Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics out of anger about China’s treatment of Tibet.

That stance brought fears that France could lose big business in China, and Mr. Sarkozy’s tone has changed. To the distress of human rights groups, Mr. Sarkozy’s advisers say he wants to avoid confrontation and go for convergence during Mr. Hu’s visit.

Mr. Sarkozy and French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy greeted Mr. Hu at the airport on his arrival Thursday, an honor the French president rarely grants visitors. The two leaders reviewed French troops, then headed into Paris.

The two leaders then paraded in a motorcade down the Champs-Elysees, with French and Chinese flags hanging overhead and spectators gathered behind barricades.

The French president believes China’s support will be essential as France prepares to take the leadership of the Group of 20 rich and developing nations starting Nov. 12. Mr. Sarkozy has set himself ambitious goals, saying France will push for mechanisms to limit excessive currency volatility and swings in commodity prices.

Business interests are also central to the visit, with deals expected for French oil company Total SA and nuclear engineering giant Areva, Mr. Sarkozy’s office said.

Even before the visit started, China Southern Airlines said in a statement released through the Hong Kong stock exchange that it would buy 36 jets from European consortium Airbus at a total list price of $3.78 billion.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders released doves from cages Thursday to press for the liberation of Chinese dissidents from jail. The media advocacy group was among the organizers of massive protests against China’s human rights record when the Olympic flame passed through Paris in 2008 ahead of the Games.

Many observers have complained that Mr. Sarkozy said nothing last month when jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Sarkozy’s office says the leaders will discuss “all subjects without taboos” but has not given any details on what he plans to say about human rights.

The two men held talks Thursday at the presidential Elysee Palace, and then Mr. Sarkozy and his wife, model-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, hosted China’s first couple for a state dinner.

On Friday, the two leaders head to the French Riviera city of Nice for more talks and dinner at a cozy Provencal restaurant. The Nice trip was a suggestion from Mr. Hu, who has traveled in France before but has never been to that part of the country, Mr. Sarkozy’s office said.

Mr. Hu departs Saturday for Portugal.

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