Prague, 30 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin made his first official trip outside the European Union today when he arrived in Moscow for a three-day visit to Russia.
The trip's primary purpose is to increase trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. Jospin brought with him not only his ministers for foreign and economic affairs but some 40 business, banking and industrial leaders who will attend a session of the Franco-Russian inter-governmental economic commission set up early last year. The meeting is expected to produce a number of governmental and private accords, including a joint customs agreement and a large-scale cooperation deal between Renault and Moskvich car manufacturers.
But Jospin, a Socialist who shares executive power with conservative President Jacques Chirac, will also be discussing broad foreign-policy issues in Moscow. He is due to meet with President Boris Yeltsin this afternoon -- the first encounter ever between the two men -- and hold talks later with his Russian counterpart, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Officials in the Premier's office say that Jospin will touch on European security questions, implementation of the Bosnia peace accords, the Middle East and the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. France and Russia are co-chairmen, along with the U.S., of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) group seeking to mediate the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The officials stress that Jospin shares Chirac's desire to build closer relations with Russia, France's historic ally. In recent weeks, Chirac and Yeltsin, whose warm friendship dates back a decade, have been responsible for several major foreign-policy initiatives that openly flout U.S. policies. The most important of them was a $2 billion deal by France's Total oil company and Russia's Gazprom utility (along with a Malaysian company) to develop off-shore natural gas resources for Iran. When Jospin was asked about the deal, he said, "I rejoice in it."
Russian officials are also following their president's lead in touting growing closeness between Paris and Moscow. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Valery Nesterushkin spoke of promoting what he called "a privileged partnership" between the two countries.
Jospin leads a five-month old Left government that includes Communists, whose support he needs to maintain a slim parliamentary majority. He was able to take office because of a major miscalculation by Chirac, who called early general elections last Spring that were won by the Left. Since then, Jospin has not only run France's domestic affairs, with Chirac an occasional but not very effective critic, but has played a larger foreign-policy role than was true in earlier French "cohabitations" between Left and Right.
In trade and economic cooperation with Russia, France today is far behind the U.S., Germany and several other nations. Total bilateral trade this year is expected to be about $3.2 billion and French current investment in Russia is only $310 billion.
But these figures are likely to increase substantially when the French Government opens up new $1.3 billion guaranteed credit lines to private construction, telecommunication, manufacturing and other companies. Since the collapse of European communism eight years ago, French businessmen have shown themselves reluctant to move into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union without government guarantees. With the new credits, however, trade is expected to double within the next few years and French investment to grow considerably.