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Speaking to French expatriates in the Vietnamese commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City, Hollande once again acknowledged that the two countries shared a “tumultuous past”, but insisted they now enjoyed a new era of robust diplomatic and commercial ties.
“Hollande stressed that France has a very special role to play here in Vietnam. It’s about culture, it’s about preserving an identity and defending certain values,” said France 24 correspondent Clovis Casali from Ho Chi Minh City.
France fought Viet Minh fighters between 1946 and 1954, before being forced out of its former colony by the armed insurgency. Vietnam’s national holiday on September 2 commemorates its declaration of independence from France.
Hollande is only the third French president to visit Vietnam since independence, and the first in 12 years. “He stressed the need to strike a new partnership with Vietnam, especially on the economic level,” Casali added.
Hollande said the “very important deals” in the aviation industry deepened ties with Vietnam, where France’s legacy remains ubiquitous – from the country’s colonial-era buildings to French-influenced cuisine.
The French president was also expected to meet with French entrepreneurs in Ho Chi Minh City, including some from Vietnam’s burgeoning tech sector.
Big planes for a growing economy
Earlier, as Hollande met his counterpart Tran Dai Quang in the capital of Hanoi, Vietnam airlines announced it had bought 40 jets worth $6.5 billion from France’s Airbus.
The deal is the latest move by Vietnamese aviation firms to boost fleets and feed demand from a mushrooming middle class with money to burn on air travel both at home and abroad.
Low-cost private airline VietJet, famous for its bikini-clad hostesses, also bought 20 planes for a total of $2.39 billion.
Another regional budget carrier, Jetstar Pacific, also bought 10 airplanes, according to an Airbus Asia spokesman.
The three carriers are making a major move into the lucrative Southeast Asian aviation sector.
With a GDP growth rate of 6.7 percent last year, an ever-increasing chunk of Vietnam’s 90 million people have spending power that airline and other industries are keen to tap.
Hollande also spoke to President Quang about maritime freedom, a key issue for Hanoi, which is locked in an increasingly testy bitter row with Beijing over competing claims in the South China Sea.
“The president and I committed to respect the rule of law in the seas and oceans, reaffirming the commitment to maintain freedom of maritime and aviation,” Quang said.
“The two sides stressed the importance of solving disputes by peaceful means, not to use or threaten to use violence on the basis of international laws.”
A UN-backed tribunal ruled in July that China’s claims to almost all of the South China Sea had no legal basis and that its construction of artificial islands in disputed waters was illegal.
Ahead of his visit, Hollande was urged by activists to raise the issue of human rights with authorities in tightly controlled Vietnam, where bloggers and dissidents are routinely jailed for criticising the regime.
But rights are not on the official agenda for what is slated as a trade visit.