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Russia: Putin Heads To Paris For First Major Trip As Prime Minister --> Putin (right) and Sarkozy in Moscow in October 2007 (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) Vladimir Putin is traveling to France on his first major foreign visit as Russian prime minister.

Russian officials say Putin is traveling to Paris because of France's presidency of the European Union later this year. Putin is scheduled to hold talks with his French counterpart, Francois Fillon, and with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Observers, however, are asking why Putin -- rather than his hand-picked successor in the Kremlin, Dmitry Medvedev -- is making the first official visit to the West since Russia's political reshuffle earlier this month, and who is now calling the shots on Russia's foreign policy.

Sylvain Guiaugue, a spokesman for the French Embassy in Moscow, insists Putin's trip to France was initiated last year, before it became clear he would become prime minister.

"During his visit to Moscow in October 2007, Mr. Sarkozy had invited Mr. Vladimir Putin to come to France as soon as his presidential term ends," Guiaugue says. "So this is a response to this invitation that Mr. Sarkozy had extended last October."

Nonetheless, Russia-watchers say the trip illustrates Putin's unusual authority as prime minister.

'Country's True Leader'

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says Putin continues to set the tone in both domestic and foreign policy.

"Putin is acting like the country's true leader," Oreshkin says. "Even before the presidential elections, it was already clear that Medvedev would be a president on probation, at least for the first few months, maybe even years. Putin has done everything to remain in control of real power and decision making."

Analysts point to the scheduled working dinner between Putin and Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace on May 29 -- a rare honor for a visiting head of government -- as proof that even abroad, Putin is being treated as more than just a prime minister.

No Special Treatment

Guiaugue denies France is offering Putin preferential treatment. "There is not special treatment," he says. "Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Putin know each other well. They met last year in the framework of their presidential functions, and they have important issues to discuss."

Topping the agenda will be energy issues and the launch of a long-stalled partnership agreement between Russia and the European Union. EU member states on May 26 approved the start of negotiations with Moscow on the deal, putting an end to two years of crisis in EU-Russia relations.

Putin is being accompanied to Paris by Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the state nuclear agency Rosatom, and by representatives of state bank VTB and Avtovaz, Russia's biggest carmaker.

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