French and Saudis meet over projects worth billions of euros

PARIS - Top French and Saudi leaders were set to gather Wednesday in Paris to discuss billions of euros in projects as the two nations work to tighten economic and diplomatic bonds.

French President Francois Hollande was to host Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister Prince Mohamed bin Salman after the inaugural meeting of a Franco-Saudi committee to talk about proposed projects in sectors like aeronautics and nuclear power.

France has been reinforcing links with the conservative kingdom despite persistent criticism of its human rights record, while Riyadh is keen to broaden its ties with Western powers beyond its traditional alliance with the United States.

Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Hollande during his visit to Riyadh in May for an economic summit, which included a meeting between Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the French president.

After the gathering, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced Saudi Arabia -- the Arab world's largest economy -- and France were in talks regarding 20 projects potentially worth tens of billions of euros (dollars).

It is unclear if the Saudi visit this week will yield concrete signed contracts, but Hollande said in May that announcements on deals between the two nations could come as soon as June.

Saudi Arabia has been under international pressure, including from Washington and Paris, to drop a sentence of 1,000 lashes for a renowned human rights activist and blogger.

The kingdom has also faced criticism over its willingness to use the death penalty. According to an AFP count Saudi Arabia executed 102 locals and foreigners in the year to mid-June, compared with 87 during all of 2014.