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Putin Seeks Energy, Car Deals On Visit To France

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

PARIS (Reuters) -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will offer French firms a bigger role in major energy projects at talks today while clinching Renault's support to save Soviet-era indebted car giant AvtoVAZ.

Russian officials say a flurry of business deals will be sealed after talks outside Paris between Putin and his French counterpart Francois Fillon.

"We have two main pillars in our bilateral cooperation -- energy and high-tech," Putin's deputy chief of staff Yuri Ushakov told reporters before the visit.

Iran's nuclear program and Moscow's plans to buy a French warship may also be discussed, though he said business deals would take center stage.

Ushakov said French car maker Renault will sign a rescue deal today for the ailing maker of Lada cars, AvtoVAZ, a move that would help the Kremlin avoid mass lay-offs.

French direct investment in Russia amounts to $10 billion, including $1 billion made by Renault, which committed to buy a stake in AvtoVAZ in 2008.

Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom will also sign a memorandum of understanding with French state energy major EDF, Ushakov said, though he gave no further details.

EDF has been long expected to join the South Stream project to help Gazprom and Italy's ENI build a pipeline under the Black Sea to supply gas to southern Europe.

France joined Germany and Italy as one of Russia's top energy investors when Gazprom chose French company Total to become its partner in the $15-billion Shtokman gas field, one of the world's largest.

Since then, Russia has regularly offered French firms a bigger role in new energy projects and praised growing trade volumes with France under President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Bilateral trade jumped by 35 percent to $22 billion in 2008 due to high energy prices, making France Russia's fifth biggest European trading partner behind Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland and on a par with Britain.

Putin is unlikely to meet the French president on this trip because Sarkozy will be abroad, Ushakov said.

Russia's plans to buy a Mistral-class warship, which can be used in amphibious assaults and to carry tanks, are also likely to be discussed. "As far the purchase of Mistral warship is concerned, this topic is not on the agenda but everyone talks about it so it will be touched upon one way or another," said Ushakov.

He added that an informal discussion about Iran's nuclear programme could also take place.