President Francois Hollande began the first visit to Canada by a French leader in a quarter of a century on Sunday, flying in to the country’s oil-rich west to drum up trans-Atlantic trade.
A new trade pact between Canada and the European Union is due to come into effect in coming years, eliminating 98 percent of tariffs on goods and services and potentially boosting commerce by a fifth.
France is keen to win its share of any new deals and to increase research ties with Canadian universities, as well as to pay tribute to a close ally in the struggle against violent extremism.
On Monday, Hollande will speak before Canada’s federal parliament in Ottawa, which less than two weeks ago was the scene of a shootout between police and a lone gunman with jihadist sympathies.
Officials told AFP that this would be an “important moment” for Hollande to show solidarity with a country that is fighting alongside France in a US-led coalition against jihadist militants in Iraq.
Then he will head to the French-speaking province of Quebec, which has traditionally had strong economic and cultural ties with France.
France is hoping to persuade the regional government to drop a plan to halt an arrangement that allows French students to pay the same as local people to attend Quebec universities.
But first, Hollande’s journey took him to Alberta, home of Canada’s vast oil reserves. Officials said he was keen to show that France is also interested in stronger ties with English-speaking Canada.
The first French president to come to Canada since Francois Mitterrand in 1987 was welcomed to Calgary by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and headed to Banff in the foothills of the Rockies.
The presence of some 40 French business leaders in Hollande’s party was testament to the economic focus of his visit.
Hollande and his party were meeting with the leaders of Alberta, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, mainly English-speaking provinces in the west with growing economic potential.
“I would like France to keep showcasing the immense riches of Canada’s Northwest Territories, whether it is exploration, transformation or hydrocarbon transport techniques, or infrastructure building,” Hollande said.
“French firms are especially well placed in these areas.”
Major French companies like Total oil are already present but the region’s infrastructure and service needs are attractive to French executives.
– Greenhouse gases –
Western Canada is enjoying an economic boom on the back of Alberta’s oil industry, including the controversial exploitation of oil sands and shale gas, which environmentalists see as harmful.
The environment will be one of the trickiest topics of Hollande’s trip, as the French leader begins preparations for the next global climate conference on ways to slow climate change in Paris next year.
Canada is one of the world’s top polluters and Harper’s government pulled the country out of the 2011 Kyoto Protocol designed to slow global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
“France and Canada have decided to act together, not only for the good of our countries but for the planet,” Hollande said.
“That’s what motivates the Canadian prime minister and French government.”
Harper did not publicly disagree, but Canada may prove a stumbling block to France’s efforts to build a front against climate change.
“All of us here recognize your personal position and your role as global leader” on the issue,” Harper said in French.
The Canadian leader shunned the climate summit that took place on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September.
And Canada is already widely expected to not meet its promises to reduce its greenhouse gases by 17 percent by 2020.
In November next year, Hollande will gather leaders from all over the world in the French capital for the United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP21, seeking to negotiate new emissions limits.
Energy exporters and major developed economies like Canada will be asked to make sacrifices, but Canada has shown no willingness to rein in its energy industry and is planning huge new pipelines.