PARIS – France's government welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday with promises of a new beginning in an old relationship, starting with investments to boost Iran's flagging economy that has been crippled by decades of sanctions.
"It's a new chapter of our relationship," French president Francois Hollande said in a joint news conference following a two-hour meeting with Rouhani at the Elysee palace. "I want that relationship to be useful, useful to both countries, useful to the (Middle East) region affected by wars, crises and tragedies."
Hollande added that he raised the issue of human rights and freedom during the meeting.
France sees the visit also as an opportunity to draw Iran into a role of crisis-solving, notably in Syria's civil war where Iran actively supports the government of President Bashar Assad, which Paris firmly opposes.
"We must fight terrorism" in Syria and Iraq, Rouhani said during the joint conference. "We must help the Syrian people so that the Syrian people can build a sustainable future for the country," he said.
Rouhani decried the sanctions his country was previously under, saying history has shown that they "never worked." He said the nuclear deal that led to the lifting of sanctions this month can serve as a model for solutions in other crises, notably in the Middle East.
A total of 20 agreements were signed after Rouhani's meeting with Hollande.
Iran Air signed a deal to buy 118 aircraft from Airbus, valued at 22.8 billion euros ($25 billion). PSA Peugeot Citroen also announced a joint venture with Iran Khodro to produce latest-generation vehicles in Tehran by the end of 2017.
French and Iranian companies also signed agreements in the sectors of air and maritime transport, airports, health and agriculture. Oil and gas company Total inked a deal with the National Iranian Oil Company to purchase crude oil.
The French presidency said the total amount of the deals signed during Rouhani's visit, including Airbus, could reach up to 30 billion euros ($32.8 billion).
The historic outreach trip did face some strains, however, in a reminder of the complexities confronting all sides despite the French welcome mat.
France has asked its European Union partners to consider new sanctions on Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests, officials told The Associated Press. That highlights continued suspicions between Iran and the West.
Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, with headquarters outside Paris, held a demonstration, and 61 lawmakers signed an open letter to Hollande condemning Iran's human rights record, with executions on the rise, and what it called its "strategy of chaos" in the Middle East.
An activist hung from a fake noose off a Paris bridge next to a huge banner reading "Welcome Rouhani, Executioner of Freedom."
At the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Rouhani took digs at the West, notably regarding the migrant crisis. He pointed out that Europe is complaining about the number of refugees arriving on its territory while Iran is hosting 3 million Afghans "without complaining."
Rouhani, who arrived in France from Italy, was originally scheduled to visit Paris in November, but the trip was called off after Islamic extremists carried out attacks around Paris that killed 130 people.