PARIS — France announced euro16 billion ($22.8 billion) in deals Thursday to sell uranium, technology and more than 100 Airbus planes to China, and the two countries also agreed to a sweeping strategic partnership on nuclear power.
Chinese President Hu Jintao's three-day state visit to France opened with a red carpet welcome, Chinese flags flying on the streets of Paris and dinner at the Elysee Palace – as well as a flurry of deals that made clear how much the countries' ties have improved.
It was a turnaround from the tense relations of two years ago, when French President Nicolas 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 Sarkozy's tone has changed. To the distress of human rights groups, Sarkozy's advisers say he is avoiding confrontation and going for convergence.
Sarkozy said the two countries decided on "strategic cooperation without limits" on nuclear energy, from constructing plants to recycling fuel.
The deal expands on 30 years of nuclear cooperation between China and France, which gets about three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power and has deep knowledge of the field.
Sarkozy and Hu looked on as business leaders signed contract after contract. The Airbus deal alone – which will see airlines including Air China, China Eastern and China Southern buy 102 of the European consortium's A320, A330 and A350 models – is worth around $14 billion.
France's Areva nuclear engineering firm said it would sell China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp. 20,000 tons of uranium over a decade. The contract is worth around $3.5 billion dollars.
Cooperation is cultural as well: Paris' Louvre Museum and Beijing's Forbidden City agreed to work together on temporary exhibits and to share conservation and restoration techniques.
References to human rights have been subtle during the visit.
In a toast at a dinner table covered with gold ornaments and Champagne glasses, Sarkozy praised China's staggering recent development, adding: "The world is confidently waiting for (China) to take on all the responsibilities that accompany its rediscovered power."
Sarkozy believes China's support is essential as France takes the leadership of the Group of 20 major global economies starting Nov. 12. Sarkozy has ambitious goals, saying France will push for reform of the international monetary system and mechanisms to limit swings in commodity prices.
Sarkozy and French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy greeted Hu at the airport on his arrival, an honor the French president rarely grants visitors. Their motorcade rolled down the famous Champs-Elysees avenue, where French and Chinese flags flew from lampposts.
At the presidential palace, guards in silver helmets and on horseback awaited Hu as he arrived.
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders released doves from cages to press for the liberation of jailed Chinese dissidents. At another demonstration to support Tibet, the Uighur minority and the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, one demonstrator held a sign reading "Welcome, dictator."
Many observers have complained that Sarkozy said nothing last month when jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. Sarkozy's office says he will discuss all subjects "without taboos" during the visit.
Asked about human rights, China's Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying told French reporters: "We don't criticize your political system, it's up to you to improve it. Our regime has its own problems. We're not perfect. That's why we are going forward with reform."
On Friday, the two leaders head to the French Riviera city of Nice for more talks and dinner at a cozy Provencal restaurant. Hu departs Saturday for Portugal.
Sarkozy has often flip-flopped on China. Despite his boycott threat, he did back down and attend the Olympic opening ceremony.
Sarkozy again angered China by meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in Poland in late 2008. After that the two countries' high-level contacts were frozen, and France was snubbed during major Chinese purchasing and investment missions to Europe.
The two countries reconciled with a fence-mending agreement last year. Sarkozy's conservative UMP party even signed a cooperation agreement with China's ruling Communist Party – a move that raised eyebrows in France.