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Vietnam's President Visits France to Increase Aid, Commercial Ties - 2002-10-28

Vietnam's President Tran Duc Luong is in France for the first official visit by a Vietnamese leader in more than half a century. He is holding dinner talks Monday night with French President Jacques Chirac. The visit, aimed to bolster economic ties, is not without controversy.

President Tran Duc Luong will meet with leaders of France's business and political establishment during his historic, four-day visit here.

Hanoi's main goal is to increase aid and commercial ties with France, Vietnam's top European investor, and boost scientific exchanges.

As a former colonial power in Vietnam, France remains Hanoi's top non-Asian investor and development donor, giving almost $72 million in aid in 2001.

France says its aid to Vietnam aims to encourage reform and openness in the Southeast Asian country, where per-capita income is less than $2,000 a year.

The talks between Vietnamese and French officials are also expected to include the possible sale of European Airbus jets to Vietnam, and ways to encourage adoption of Vietnamese children in France.

Two French presidents, including Mr. Chirac, have visited Vietnam since the two countries reestablished diplomatic relations in 1973. But President Luong's visit here is the first by a Vietnamese leader since a 1946 trip by the country's Communist founder, Ho Chi Minh.

Tran Pran Son Mach is a correspondent with the Vietnam News Agency in Paris. Mr. Tran said Vietnamese leaders have been overwhelmed with duties at home. That's why, he suggested, it has taken so long for Hanoi to return the French presidential visits.

But President Luong's trip has sparked criticism by several human rights groups, who have sent a letter to President Chirac. Penelope Faulkner, vice-president of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights in Paris, explains why. "Basically we were saying it seemed to us a paradox that the French President Jacques Chirac is meeting the President Tran Duc Luong, the president of one of the countries which is one of the worst violators of human rights, without raising the situation of political prisoners and religious prisoners in Vietnam," Mr. Faulkner said.

Mrs. Faulkner said the human rights groups have specifically asked the French government to address the status of two Vietnamese clergy and another political dissident imprisoned in Vietnam during President Luong's visit. So far, she said, she has received no official reply.