ISSY-LES-MOULINEAUX, France — If Steve Ballmer ever tires of Redmond, Washington, he'll always have Paris.

The Microsoft chief executive wowed an audience of hundreds of company executives and government ministers by giving a 10-minute speech in French at the opening late Tuesday of the software giant's new corporate headquarters and research center just outside the French capital.

"I thank you for coming here to celebrate an important date for our company and its relations with France. It's so important that I am daring to speak to you tonight in the language of Moliere," Ballmer said in careful, well-pronounced French.

Ballmer asked for the French audience's understanding for what he called "my bad French," and switched into French to say "France means so much to me. I love your country."

During Ballmer's speech, someone in the audience dropped a glass, and without missing a beat he raised his own water glass and ad-libbed a joke: "A la votre!" or "Cheers!"

Ballmer's performance impressed Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who took the microphone after him. Noting that "your French has improved a lot since the last time," Lagarde presented him with a document making him a permanent legal resident in France "for exceptional service to the economy."

"Steve, France loves you, so you can come and visit any time, because you are one of us," Lagarde said.

It's not the first time Ballmer has deployed his language skills in Europe; he also made comments in decent French at a mostly English news conference in Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium in April, 2008.

Microsoft said Ballmer learned to speak French when he lived in Belgium for three years in the early 1960s, when his father worked there for Ford Motor Co.