Paris, France (AFP) Feb 15, 2006
French President Jacques Chirac leads a high-level delegation on a state visit to Thailand and India Thursday -- after cutting short the saga over an asbestos-lined French warship that had threatened to mar the trip.
Travelling with his wife Bernadette, five key ministers and some 30 business leaders, the president's five-day Asian tour is designed to cement economic ties and step up French investments in the two countries.
Chirac will be making his first state visit to Thailand, a country he described this week as "the heart of the development of Asia," before heading on Sunday to New Delhi, which he last visited in 1998.
Striking an embarrassing item from the agenda of talks in New Delhi, Chirac ordered the Clemenceau warship home on Wednesday after its transfer to India -- bitterly opposed by environmentalists -- was blocked by a French court.
The stripped-down hull, sent to India for scrapping, had been marooned for several weeks in the Indian Ocean, barred from entering the country pending a Supreme Court decision.
A second thorny issue remains, however, on the economic front: the bid by Mittal Steel, headed by Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, for its rival Arcelor, which employs 30,000 people in France.
Paris has said the issue would be discussed but insists any concerns it may have are linked to business procedure -- not to Mittal's nationality -- after New Delhi warned European governments against racism over the bid.
More broadly, the French government wishes to use the trip to boost economic links with the region, with summits in Bangkok and New Delhi to bring together French and local political and business leaders.
"At a time when Asia is asserting itself as a major player in the world, the president wishes more than ever to pursue and intensify efforts to build strong political, economic and human relations between France and Asian nations," Chirac's spokesman said ahead of the trip.
Chirac will be accompanied by Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, Economy Minister Thierry Breton, Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, External Trade Minister Christine Lagarde and Tourism Minister Leon Bertrand.
French businesses represented on the trip include engineering groups Alstom, Thales and Schneider, the aerospace group EADS, the energy and utilities groups Areva, Suez, Veolia and Total and the construction materials group Lafarge.
In Thailand, where French companies hold an overall market share of just 1.45 percent, Chirac has said his government hopes to quickly double the number of French firms investing in the kingdom.
But the main economic focus will be India, where Paris has said it wishes to massively increase trade exchanges to reflect its "close political relations" with New Delhi.
France is currently the 15th foreign supplier to the Asian giant, a market of 1.1 billion people which grew by eight percent last year.
According to the Elysee, France hopes to seal partnerships in the areas of energy, transport and telecommunications -- although no major contracts are expected to be signed during the trip.
French and Indian leaders are also expected to issue a common declaration on civilian nuclear energy, a first step towards a possible cooperation agreement.
In Thailand, where the visit coincides with the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's coronation, the French delegation is set to sign a series of cooperation agreements, including in the area of defence.
The delegation will return to Paris on Tuesday.
Source: Agence France-Presse
Recall Of French Warship A 'Big Blow' To Indian Shipbreaking Mumbai, India (AFP) Feb 15 - The return of an asbestos-lined warship to France could cost thousands of jobs in India's shipbreaking industry, the man who would have led its clean-up said Wednesday.
"It's a big blow for the industry," said Girish Luthra, chairman of Gujarat Enviro Protection and Infrastructure, whose company was due to remove the toxic materials from the Clemenceau.
He said if work had been carried out on the French aircraft carrier it could have triggered further demand from overseas for break-ups to be carried out in the shipyards of Alang in Gujarat in western India.
"This particular ship could have given 300 to 400 workers jobs. Overall I am sure this would have given work to five to 10,000 people," he told AFP.
Raj Bansal, the president of the Ship Recycling Industries Association in Alang, sounded more optimistic.
"I am sure we will continue to get more ships. One ship being taken away due to pressure from environmental activists will not make much difference to the industry," he said.
The Alang yards, one of the world's biggest shipbreaking centres, has suffered a major downturn since 2003.
The French climbdown was a major victory for environmentalists, who fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the ship from being sent to India, where they say it would have posed a serious environmental and health hazard.
"The Clemenceau has been an icon of toxic waste. It (the decision by the French court) has also shown that governments when pressured by public opinion can take corrective action," said Greenpeace spokesman Ramapathi Kumar.
"This incident should set the precedent for all toxic trade." The head of the Shree Ram group, the company with the contract to break up the vessel, declined to comment on the issue.
France's State Council on Wednesday ordered the Clemenceau's transfer to India to be suspended, in response to complaints by Greenpeace and three anti-asbestos groups.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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