French President Francois Hollande called Monday for an end to the US embargo on Cuba during the first visit by a French head of state to the country.
Cuba has been drawing closer to both the European Union and the United States after beginning historic talks about restoring diplomatic relations.
The French leader stressed that France will do whatever possible to see that “the measures that have so badly harmed Cuba’s development can be lifted, repealed,” addressing the half-century-old trade embargo before meeting with Fidel and Raul Castro.
Hollande, accompanied by a host of French business executives, is the first serving Western European leader to visit the island since 1986 when the Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez came to Cuba.
Speaking with students at Havana University, Hollande said "Anything France can do to make sure ... the opening is confirmed, so that the measures that have so harmed the development of Cuba can be rescinded, so that the identity of each country is respected, this is what has to be done."
Executives from French companies including Soufflet, Air France, telecom operator Orange, hotelier Accor and distiller Pernod Ricard are accompanying him, as are five ministers.
French oil company Total and Cuban state oil monopoly CubaPetroleo (Cupet) signed an agreement Monday to seek offshore oil, as reported by Cuban state-run television.
Cuba, a communist country, has been embargoed by the European Union from 2003 until 2008 and by the United States since 1962 until it began to lift sanctions in December under the Obama administration.
Efforts of the Democratic Obama administration to remove the Cuban embargo were met with resistance from the Republican House and Senate.
France, a longtime opponent of the embargo, already has bilateral ties with Cuba which it is seeking to expand. The removal of the embargo would mostly benefit France even though it may hurt grain exporter Groupe Soufflet which currently enjoys a niche wheat market in Cuba.
Hollande was able to meet with the retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 88, for an hour, whom he praised highly: "I had before me a man who made history. There is a debate on what could be his place, his responsibilities. But coming to Cuba, I wanted to meet Fidel Castro."
Hollande was scheduled to meet privately with Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, who took over when the revolutionary leader retired in 2008 citing poor health.