France calls for end to US sanctions on Cuba during Castro visit

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Paris (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande called Monday for an end to US sanctions on Cuba during a historic visit to Paris by President Raul Castro, seen as a key step in rebuilding ties with the West.

"President Obama... must, and he's said it himself, go all the way and bring an end to this vestige of the Cold War," Hollande said after meeting with the 84-year-old Cuban leader.

Castro is on his first official trip to the European Union since taking over from his elder brother Fidel in 2006.

France has led the way in welcoming Cuba back into the diplomatic fold since the Caribbean island restored relations last year with the United States, after more than half a century of enmity.

The visit builds on Hollande's own state visit to Cuba last May, the first by a Western head of state in more than half a century.

Castro is the second former pariah to be welcomed to Paris in a matter of days, after Hollande hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week.

He was formally welcomed on Monday under the Arc de Triomphe before being driven down a virtually deserted Champs-Elysees avenue decked out in Cuban flags.

Police severely restricted access to spectators, and just a few groups of supporters of the Cuban regime were present.

Havana hopes the visit will allow Cuba to "widen and diversify its relations with France in all possible areas -- politics, economics, trade, finance, investment, culture and cooperation," said Rogelio Sierra, Cuba's deputy foreign minister.

Although Washington has yet to lift its trade embargo on Cuba -- that dates back to 1962 -- US and European businesses are jockeying for position as the communist island's economy gradually opens up.

Trade delegations have been flocking to Cuba, hoping to cash in on its highly trained workforce and natural assets such as its sun-drenched Caribbean beaches, a draw for tourists.

Cuba, meanwhile, needs to tap new sources of income as its main ally and financial backer, Venezuela, is mired in economic and political crisis.

France and Cuba signed deals on tourism, transport and fairtrade goods.

Some of France's largest companies already invest in Cuba, including telecoms group Alcatel-Lucent, and energy firms Total and Alstom.

France's Pernod-Ricard has produced Havana Club rum in Cuba for two decades, although the same drink is also produced in Puerto Rico by Bacardi, Cuba's best-known rum maker, which was forced into exile in 1960.

On Monday, Bacardi launched a lawsuit to head off plans to allow the sale of the Cuban Havana Club in the United States once sanctions are dropped.

- Debt write-off -

The trip to France is the first by a Cuban head of state since Fidel Castro visited then president Francois Mitterrand in 1995.

Raoul Castro was due to attend a state dinner before meeting various French officials on Tuesday.

France recently engineered an agreement among the Paris Club of international creditors to write off $8.5 billion (7.8 billion euros) of Cuba's debt.

It agreed to further debt relief on Monday, converting 200 million euros of debt into an investment fund.

France is also taking a leading role in strengthening Cuba's political ties with Europe as a whole.

Human rights remains a sensitive issue, with international authorities accusing the Castros of repressing and harassing their political opponents.

A diplomatic source in Paris said human rights "will be discussed" during the talks. Hollande faced criticism from rights groups after meeting with Fidel Castro last year.

There were also demonstrations against Rouhani's visit last week, although Hollande hailed a "new relationship" after sealing a slew of lucrative trade deals drawn up after nuclear sanctions on Iran were lifted.

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