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China's Xi talks culture in France but business prevails

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.

French authorities have bent over backwards to woo 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 at rush hour Thursday to avoid any security slips or unwelcome protests against China’s much-decried human rights record.

– ‘Investments decisive for us’ –

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 Xi and his French counterpart Francois Hollande oversaw the signing of 50 deals worth 18 billion euros ($25 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 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 percent 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 scores of 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 $10 billion.

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

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.

- Major Tibet protest planned -

But business was far from Xi’s mind on Thursday as he visited the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Paris.

There, he met with UNESCO head Irina Bokova and delivered a speech drawing on famous poets and writers to highlight his country’s long history and the importance of cultural diversity.

“Through cultural exchanges, people would like to… sow the seeds of peace,” he said.

His wife Peng, China’s first prominent First Lady and a famous singer, was also nominated a UNESCO envoy for the promotion of women’s education.

After holding talks with Hollande Wednesday that touched on political issues such as the crisis in Ukraine, Xi was due to meet with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault after his UNESCO visit.

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

The Chinese couple will then travel to the Versailles palace, built by Louis XIV and a symbol of absolute monarchy that ended with the 1789 French revolution, where they will be treated to a concert and another lavish dinner.

The question of human rights in China was also due to come to the fore Thursday with Tibetan exiles planning a big rally in Paris.

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.

Already in the morning, activists from media watchdog Reporters Without Borders unfurled a huge portrait of Xi making an obscene gesture, in a photomontage that carried the slogan: “without freedom of information, no force of opposition.”

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

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