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AUSTRALIA

French president goes down under for first time

President François Hollande became the first French head of state on Tuesday to pay an official state visit to Australia where he hopes to boost ties and trade and move on from the past.

French president goes down under for first time
Hollande signs a guestbook in front of the Sydney Opera House (back L) before an official lunch with Australia's Governor-General Peter Cosgrove (R) and his wife Lynne. Photo: Jason Reed/AFP

Hollande's visit comes almost two decades after French nuclear tests in the South Pacific drew fierce criticism of Paris from Australia.

Hollande is leading a major business delegation and seeking to "strengthen the historic links and economic relations" between the two countries, his Elysee office said in a statement.

"We are in a position where we can have closer and further economic ties," Hollande told the Australian Business Council.

"What I am saying is we need to push our aspirations further," he added, describing French companies such as satellite giant Arianespace as at the "forefront of technology".

He was officially welcomed by an honour guard and a 21-gun salute in parklands on Sydney Harbour.

Paris-Canberra ties suffered during nuclear testing in Polynesia in the 1990s and the sinking by French agents of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985 as it prepared to lead protests around Mururoa atoll.

However Australia and France signed a strategic partnership in January 2012 and have worked closely on Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and other major crises in recent years.

French officials said they see strong opportunities to develop trade with Australia.

"We have a card to play in this country which is in its 24th year of uninterrupted growth and has launched major projects in sectors such as telecommunications, new technologies, infrastructure and transport," said one official.

Hollande's delegation includes heads of France's leading companies such as Arianespace, the national rail firm SNCF, the Vinci construction company, energy giants GDF Suez and global luxury house LVMH.

Trade in goods and services between the countries was worth US$6.9 billion (€5.4 billion) in 2012-2013.

The French leader, who arrived from New Caledonia after attending the G20 in Brisbane at the weekend, was to visit the capital Canberra on Tuesday.

In Noumea, Hollande vowed Paris would remain neutral in a self-determination referendum that is due to be held in the French Pacific territory by 2018.

"It's the Caledonians who will have the last word," Hollande told members of the local Congress on Monday.

He was due to meet Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday when he would also lay a wreath at Australia's War Memorial.

Some 400,000 Australians — 10 percent of the population — fought in World War I and of the 60,000 who died, 40,000 of them fell in France.

Hollande will throw a reception Tuesday evening at Sydney's iconic harbour-front Opera House for the French community which has been boosted this year by 26,000 youngsters on working holiday visas.

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AUSTRALIA

Macron arrives on rare French presidential visit to Australia

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Australia on Tuesday, with the two sides expected to agree on greater cooperation in the Pacific to counter a rising China.

Macron arrives on rare French presidential visit to Australia
French President Emmanuel Macron leaves his presidential Airbus A330-200: Photo: Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP
Fresh from meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, Macron touched down for the first foray Down Under by a French leader since François Hollande came to Brisbane for a G20 summit four years ago.
   
His advisers said he wanted to discuss a “common response” to security and climate tensions in the South Pacific, which includes the French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
 
Macron told reporters he intends to “anchor” the Franco-Australian relationship “strategically, economically, but also scientifically, culturally and linguistically”.
   
He described ties between the two countries as historic, recalling how Australian soldiers helped defend France in World War I and II. 
   
France envisages a “strengthened strategic relationship” through a new axis grouping Paris, New Delhi and Canberra, he told reporters.    
   
French ambassador Christophe Penot said earlier that Paris sees Canberra as a “pivot” for broader involvement in the Indo-Pacific.
   
“What the president will tell your prime minister is that we are ready and willing to do much more with Australia in the South Pacific,” he told the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday.
   
“We must support the South Pacific islands in their development and give them options when they want to develop infrastructure. That doesn't mean we want to oppose China on that. It is just that we want to be complementary and make sure they have all the options on the table.”
   
Australia has become increasingly alarmed at China's push into the Pacific, which could potentially upset the delicate strategic balance in the region.  A senior Australian minister recently called Chinese infrastructure projects in the Pacific “white elephants” while reports last month, that were denied, said Beijing wanted to establish a permanent military base in Vanuatu. Australia's Lowy Institute estimates China provided US$1.78 billion in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific nations between 2006-16.   
 
Macron will also be keen to talk defence and trade, building on a mega Aus$50 billion (US$37 billion, 31 billion euros) deal agreed in late 2016 for France to supply Australia's new fleet of next-generation submarines.
   
The May 1-3 trip comes hot on the heels of his pomp-filled visit to Washington and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's journey to Normandy for World War I Anzac Day commemorations last month.
   
It will have a strong cultural flavour with France's 40-year-old leader discussing food Wednesday at a lunch with Australian and French chefs. As often on his foreign trips, Macron will also meet local artists, 
specifically Aboriginal artists whose work deals with the climate change — a subject on which Macron, custodian of the 2015 Paris Agreement, has taken a leadership role.
   
Following the Australia visit, the French leader will continue on to the French territory of New Caledonia, where a crucial independence referendum is due in November.
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