Why French president is making first ever trip to Cuba

French President Francois Hollande began the first visit by a French head of state to Cuba. French companies in Cuba want to expand their business with an eye to the potential end of the US. economic embargo of Cuba.

(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
French President Francois Hollande speaks to reporters on the tarmac of Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, May 10, 2015. Hollande is the first French president to ever visit communist Cuba, bringing along five ministers and two dozen business people.

French President Francois Hollande began the first visit by a French head of state to Cuba by noting it was "special" in light of Washington's opening to the Communist-ruled island.

Hollande, who arrived on Sunday night, was scheduled to meet Cuban President Raul Castro, deliver a speech and participate in an economic forum in Cuba as part of his swing through the Caribbean.

He also promised to talk about human rights in Cuba, always a sensitive subject in a country that represses freedom of assembly and controls the media.

The French president is traveling with executives from French companies including Air France, hotelier Accor and distiller Pernod Ricard. Each of those three already operates in Cuba but they want to expand their business here with an eye to the potential end of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.

Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced in December they would restore diplomatic ties and seek to normalize overall relations after more than 50 years of confrontation, and the two leaders followed that with a meeting at a regional summit in Panama in April.

"I come here to Cuba with great emotion because it is the first time that a president of the French Republic comes to Cuba," Hollande told reporters upon arriving.

"And today it takes a special meaning after what President Obama finally decided," he said.

France has always maintained relations with Cuba and is one the largest holders of Cuban debt, but the renewed opening with the United States is expected to have ramifications throughout the West.

European companies that have long done business in Cuba could have a new competitor if the United States ends the embargo. Obama, a Democrat, has asked Congress to remove it but has encountered resistance from Republicans, who control both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Hollande will also meet Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, and the Cuban chapter of the Alliance Francaise, which promotes French culture abroad.

He could also visit retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 88, whose 1959 revolution is generally well regarded in France, especially within Hollande's Socialist Party.

Fidel Castro stepped down provisionally in 2006 and definitively in 2008, handing power to his younger brother Raul. (Editing by Daniel Trotta, Eric Walsh and W Simon)

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