PARIS 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 signaled 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 and Bollore.
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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 signaling 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)