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PM arrives in Paris to be Chief-Guest at French National Day

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PARIS (PTI): Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived here Monday night on a visit which is expected to help India and France "build" a strategic partnership in atomic energy, defence, trade and other key areas.

Singh was accorded a warm welcome on his arrival to the French capital on the first leg of his five-day two-nation tour that will also take him to Egypt tomorrow for the 15th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit.

The Prime Minister, who is in Paris at the invitation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, will be the Chief Guest at the National Day celebrations of France, which he said "is an honour for the people of India."

"We would like to build upon our partnership in the areas of trade and investment, high technology, space, nuclear energy, defence, education, culture, tourism and scientific research and development," Singh said in New Delhi before leaving for Paris.

"India and France enjoy a close and wide-ranging strategic partnership. Our relations with France encompass a large number of areas and have served our national interests well," he said.

In a communique, Sarkozy has said he wishes to "honour" France's strategic partnership with India through Singh's visit.

Sarkozy said France fully supported India's bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and had called for enlargement of G-8 to include India, Brazil and China and other emerging economies.

Further strengthening defence cooperation is also likely to figure prominently in the Singh-Sarkozy talks tomorrow.

Defence Secretary Vijay Singh will be part of the PM's delegation to the talks.

An agreement on upgradation of 51 French-made Mirage fighters is expected to be discussed during Singh's visit here.

India had about two years ago decided to upgrade the 51 aircraft fleet of Mirages flown currently by three IAF squadrons. A Request for Proposal was issued over a year ago and at present, negotiations are nearing completion over the cost of the upgrades that would include better avionics and weapon systems.

Another major 'big-ticket' deal in the pipeline is the 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), which India intends to acquire. The Request for Proposal for the same was issued in late 2007.

From Paris, Singh will head to Sharm-el Sheikh in Egypt tomorrow for the NAM Summit during which he would meet his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Singh hopes to get a categoric commitment from Gilani that Mumbai attackers would be punished and cross-border terror stopped.

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