* Dos Santos makes first visit to France in 20 years
* Ties had been marred by arms sales scandal
* France shifts diplomatic focus to win overseas contracts
By John Irish
PARIS, April 29 French officials welcomed
Angola's president on Tuesday for the first time in 20 years,
hailing his economic reforms in the clearest sign yet that Paris
is turning its diplomatic focus to winning overseas contracts.
Relations were strained in the past decade after the
"Angolagate" trial over arms sales to Angolan President Eduardo
dos Santos's MPLA party during the civil war in the 1990s, which
a Paris court said broke a United Nations arms embargo.
Dos Santos, in power since 1979, made clear from the start
he was displeased about old arms deals being exposed in court,
prompting former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to fly to
Luanda in May 2008 to mend fences with the African leader.
After several convictions in 2009, Angola signalled the
court ruling would have a negative impact on ties with Paris.
But that chapter seemed finally closed on Tuesday. French
President Francois Hollande welcomed Dos Santos with fanfare.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius later rolled out the red
carpet ahead of a bilateral forum on investment opportunities in
a country with annual economic growth of about 9 percent.
"France has a deep historical relationship with Africa. We
want that to grow. We want to see the number of French companies
increasing in Angola ... I call on businessmen to invest in
Angola," Dos Santos told business leaders at the foreign
ministry on a rare overseas visit for the 71-year-old leader.
Despite its difficult ties, France has ploughed some $10
billion into Angola, making it the third biggest investor,
although it is the sixth biggest trade partner behind the likes
of the United States, China and former colonial ruler Portugal.
France has about 70 companies operating in the oil producing
nation, ranging from Air France to BNPParis
FOREIGN MINISTRY SEEKS DEALS
Its main investor is Total, now the biggest
operator in the country's oil sector, which is the largest in
Africa after Nigeria's.
Last week, the company decided to go ahead with a $16
billion investment on the new Kaombo project, which is set to
produce 230,000 barrels per day once it starts up in 2017.
"Economically, we are relaunching our partnership. The
opportunities are huge because your country is seeing a
remarkable dynamism and wants to diversify its approach," said
Fabius, who identified potential sectors of interest from water
to transport and agriculture.
Fabius, who visited Launda in October, was earlier this
month handed the task of reducing the trade deficit and
developing external business as part of an expanded portfolio to
boost growth opportunities overseas
Since taking the foreign ministry post in 2012, he has tried
to shift Frances's diplomatic focus more towards winning
contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak.
That proved cumbersome because of conflicts with the finance
and trade ministries. Since winning the greater economic role
for his ministry that he had coveted, there has been a notable
shift toward economic matters from traditional diplomacy.
Alex Vines, research director at the Chatham House think
tank in London, said Angola had also shifted focus somewhat.
"Over the last 18 months, Angola's presidency has become
more ambitious internationally possibly signalling that
President dos Santos is looking for legacies after 34 years in
power," he said.
France's attention to Angola was also recognition, he said,
"that when it comes to central Africa, Angola is increasingly a
regional anchor state for peace and security," he said,
referring to the conflict in Central African Republic where
France intervened in December.
(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Tom Heneghan)