PARIS – Just weeks after a visit to regional rival China, French President Francois Hollande arrives in Japan on Thursday, hoping to close deals on nuclear cooperation and in the aviation sector.
He is keen, too, to learn more about “Abenomics,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s big-spending, loose-money bid to stoke growth, to see what lessons could be applied at home.
The first state visit by a French president in 17 years takes place against the backdrop of Tokyo’s unease over Paris’ recent moves to build a closer relationship with Beijing.
Hollande is nevertheless expected to find common ground with Abe on economic issues.
The French leader’s aides have confirmed he is interested in the nation’s ambitious growth measures that have seen the country show tentative but promising signs of recovery after years of slump.
The state visit — which will also see several nuclear agreements signed — is the first by a French leader since sumo-lover Jacques Chirac’s 1996 trip.
Hollande will be accompanied by six ministers, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg, as well as some 40 chief executives such as the head of French nuclear giant Areva.
He will be visiting a country that finally appears to be emerging from two decades of economic stagnation and decline on the back of Abe’s reforms.
Abenomics features big government spending and aggressive central bank easing.
Japan posted 0.9 percent quarter-to-quarter growth in the first three months of 2013, and the International Monetary Fund expects the world’s third-largest economy to expand 1.6 percent this year.
This is in sharp contrast to France, which like many European countries is in the doldrums economically. It slipped into recession in the first quarter of the year and is registering sky-high unemployment.
As a result, Abenomics is drawing increasing interest in Europe, where some critics of the austerity model say that Japan’s approach could offer the eurozone an alternative route out of the crisis.
“The Abe government has put in place an extremely daring policy that is showing a certain amount of results,” an aide to the French president said. “So of course, Francois Hollande will question him on this policy.”
On the diplomatic front, Japan expressed concern in March over French naval defense firm DCNS’s sale of helicopter landing equipment to China.
The deal comes at a time when Beijing and Tokyo are embroiled in a tense standoff over islets that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
This equipment could have a direct bearing on the row by making it easier for Chinese helicopters to land on patrol vessels that Beijing regularly sends into the disputed area, around what Japan calls the Senkaku Islands and China the Diaoyu Islands.
Japan has lobbied France to issue a signal of support for its position that international law supports its claim to the uninhabited but potentially resource-rich islets and their surrounding seabeds. But Paris has refused to publicly take any side in the dispute.
The two countries are expected to sign agreements in the nuclear sector, where some analysts see opportunities for cooperation are likely to increase.
The pro-nuclear Abe is expected by some commentators to order the restart of more of the nation’s idled nuclear reactors, despite continued public unease because of the Fukushima atomic disaster.
Officials on both sides will sign a partnership agreement between the French government-funded organization CEA — which does research in the nuclear field — and Japan’s atomic watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority.
The visit is also expected to touch on the aviation sector in Japan, where European airplane maker Airbus still has some way to go to catch U.S. rival Boeing.
All Nippon Airways, one of the largest customers for Boeing’s troubled Dreamliner, said Monday it was considering Airbus’ A350 as it looks to replace its Boeing 777 fleet.