* Part of warming trend with EU
* France looking to expand business ties to Latin America
(Recasts with Castro meeting and news conference)
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, April 12 France's foreign minister met
with Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday during the first
visit to the island by such a high-ranking French official in 31
years and a sign of the quickening pace of improving ties
between the European Union and Havana.
Laurent Fabius said he discussed politics, human rights,
market-oriented reforms in Cuba and bilateral relations in what
he characterized as "a long conversation" with Castro.
"We want to push forward our relations in the areas of
culture, education, economics and politics," Fabius, a former
prime minister, told reporters at the end of a one-day visit to
the communist-run Caribbean country.
"Of course, we have different points of view on certain
issues, which doesn't stop us from exchanging perspectives and
moving forward," he said.
Earlier in the day, Fabius met with his Cuban counterpart,
Bruno Rodriguez, various Cabinet ministers, Cardinal Jaime
Ortega and French businessmen.
Since Fabius took office in 2012, he has tried to shift
more of France's diplomatic focus toward winning contracts in
markets where French firms are traditionally weak, as Paris
looks to find growth opportunities overseas.
France is looking to expand its business ties with Latin
America and sees Cuba as an important player in the region,
given that it hosted a regional summit this year and both Brazil
and Mexico are increasing their presence in the country.
"There are many French firms already here, but it's
necessary that this presence is strengthened and our Cuban
friends agree," Fabius said.
Fabius was scheduled to return to France on Saturday
evening, having previously visited Mexico.
Bilateral trade last year was $388 million (280 million
euros), according to the French government, involving mainly
wheat exports to Cuba.
Construction and engineering firm Bouygues,
beverage maker Pernod-Ricard, the Accor
tourism corporation and energy company Total, all have
investments in Cuba and are among 60 French firms operating in
France has also been leading efforts by the Paris Club of
creditor nations to resume debt negotiations with Havana, broken
off in 2000.
The EU agreed in February to begin negotiations with Cuba to
increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its
most significant diplomatic shift since it lifted sanctions on
the country in 2008.
The talks are scheduled to begin on April 29 in Havana,
according to European diplomats, who said the French foreign
minister's visit would test the waters.
Cuba has been subject to a U.S. embargo for five decades. It
is eager to eliminate the EU's "common position," enacted in
December 1996, which links human rights and democratic
conditions to improved economic relations.
To do so, the two sides will have to reach a new accord
agreeable to all 28 EU member states, including Poland and the
Czech Republic, which have taken a harder line on Cuba given
their own communist pasts.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Additional reporting by Rosa Tania
Valdes; Editing by Dan Grebler, James Dalgleish and Peter