* First visit by a French foreign minister in three decades
* Opportunity to explore closer EU-Cuba relations
* Dozens of French firms active in Cuba
PARIS, March 19 France's foreign minister said
on Wednesday he would soon travel to Cuba, the first such visit
in 30 years and a sign of the quickening pace of improving ties
between the European Union and Havana.
Cuba this month accepted a proposal by the EU to open
negotiations on a new political accord, saying it was willing to
talk about human rights as part of discussions that would end
what it considers a one-sided relationship with Europe.
On Feb. 10, the EU agreed 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 communist-ruled country in 2008.
"I will soon go to Cuba, which is something new," Laurent
Fabius said during a news conference with his Brazilian
counterpart Luiz Alberto Figueiredo.
Diplomats said the visit would take place before the summer.
It aims to assess the intentions of the Cuban government while
giving "more substance" to economic ties, the diplomats said.
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 places human rights and democracy
conditions on improved economic relations.
To do so, the two sides will have to reach a new accord that
is agreeable to all 28 member states, including Poland and the
Czech Republic, which have taken a harder line on Cuba given
their own communist pasts.
After more than a year of discussions, EU foreign ministers
decided in February to seek better ties with Havana to support
the Caribbean island nation's market-oriented reforms and to
position European companies for any transition to a more open
Since Fabius took office in 2012 he has tried to shift more
of France's diplomatic focus towards winning contracts in
markets where French firms are traditionally weak, as Paris
looks to find growth opportunities overseas.
About 60 French firms already operate in Cuba including
Pernod Ricard, Accor, Bouygues
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)