Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The visit of French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, the first by a French leader in 65 years, indicated the "deepening relationship" with the Philippines and a sign that France was ready to engage the Philippines as a "vibrant and dynamic partner," officials said Friday.
Following talks with Ayrault and witnessing the signing of two agreements with France in Malaca?ang Friday night, President Benigno Aquino III said the visit was "an affirmation of how we value the development of a more dynamic and robust partnership" between the two nations.
"This is a partnership that enjoys a firm foundation," Aquino said, citing the visit of his mother, the late President Corazon C. Aquino, to France in 1989.
Aquino's late mother was an honored guest during the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989.
Aquino conveyed the Filipino people's gratitude to France for being one-the first nation-to extend recognition to his mother's government following the ouster of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos by a people's uprising that was hailed around the world.
He said France has remained a partner in "upholding democracy and pursuing development."
Aquino and Ayrault tackled a wide range of issues, including boosting trade, economic and cultural ties, as well as regional security and the Philippines' territorial maritime dispute with China.
"On matters of regional and international concerns, especially with regard to maritime territorial disputes, the Philippines and France shared a commitment to peaceful settlement on rules-based approach in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law," Aquino said.
Both countries agreed to reactivate their "political consultations process," hoping that it would lead to a more focused and coherent direction to bilateral engagement, the President said.
The visit by Ayrault sent a "strong signal" that French companies are noticing the reforms initiated by the administration and the positive economic developments, he said.
Praise for Aquino
Ayrault said the warm reception was a sign of the "great friendship" between two people. He said his visit was the first by a French head of government, and he was "particularly happy" to be in Manila.
He praised Aquino for his own "struggle" for liberty, freedom and democracy, and vision to bring development to the country, and for his role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
"You never gave in, you never gave up," he said, recalling the 1983 assassination of his father, the late Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., and the death of his mother in 2009.
"You've always fought for peaceful settlement of disputes in this region, be it domestically or be it with other countries," the prime minister added.
Ayrault said he looked forward to a "healthy trade with the Philippines." He said the Philippine strategy for economic development "builds trust of investors" in the country.
"This is a good time to improve trust and confidence by investors because we do want to restore healthy exchanges, economically speaking and in terms of trade. We would like a healthy balance of trade," he said.
Ayrault pledged a grant from France of $482,204 (20 million pesos) for the study of biomass energy production. The grant will fund a feasibility study on the use of rice straw to generate electricity with a view to installing power stations in rural areas and replicating these in other rice-producing countries of Southeast Asia.
The two leaders also witnessed the signing of an agreement for the holding of a grand exhibition to be called "Philippines-Art of Exchange" in Paris, to run from April 9 to July 21, 2013, at Mus?e du Quai Branly.
The French prime minister invited Aquino to visit France and open the exhibition.
The Quai Branly Museum is France's premier museum for indigenous arts and culture, and features the art, cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.
Philippine foreign affairs officials said the exhibition would place the Philippines on the cultural map of France and draw thousands of foreign visitors and generate wide publicity for the country.
Head of gov't
The Philippines and Singapore will be the first Asian countries to be visited by Ayrault, who heads the government and the Cabinet of France. President Francois Hollande is France's head of state.
Ayrault, who was appointed last May, served as mayor of Nantes, France's sixth largest city, from 1989 to 2012. He led the ruling French Socialist Party in the National Assembly from 1997 to 2012. He is one of the closest advisers to President Hollande.
"It's the first time that the prime minister [is visiting] the Philippines. And it's significant in the sense that it sends the signal that there's a renewed interest in the Philippines after the 1986 People Power Revolution," said deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte.
Economic relations between the two countries have been steadily growing since establishing diplomatic relations in 1947. Bilateral trade totaled $1.143 billion in 2011, with French investments reaching 1.145 billion pesos, the officials said.
Ayrault and his 130-member delegation were given arrival honors on the Palace grounds Friday before the two leaders sat down for bilateral talks.
Later in the evening, the President hosted a state dinner for Ayrault and visiting French officials at Rizal Ceremonial Hall.