Hollande urges Myanmar leader to push ahead with reforms

French President Hollande shakes hand with President of Myanmar Thein Sein as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

PARIS - French President Francois Hollande urged Myanmar leader Thein Sein to push ahead with reforms and follow through on a vow to release political prisoners, as the two met in Paris Wednesday.

The former general, fresh from a three-day trip to London, was in Europe to build on support for introducing much-lauded reforms in the former pariah state.

Thein Sein held a 45 minute meeting in the Elysee Palace with Hollande, who called on him to "continue the process of political transition and deepen economic reforms launched two years ago."

In a statement, Hollande's office said the French president had praised the fact that "the opposition is now taking part in the national political debate".

But he said the government also needed to follow through on Thein Sein's promise on Monday that all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, would be freed by the end of the year.

Hollande "underlined the need to see all prisoners of conscience quickly freed without condition".

He also expressed France's concern at "persistent" inter-communal violence in the country.

Thein Sein on Monday voiced optimism about ending decades of conflict that have raged between the government and more than a dozen ethnic groups since independence from Britain in 1948.

Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the western state of Rakhine last year left about 200 people dead, mostly Rohingya Muslims who are denied citizenship by Myanmar. Further clashes have erupted in recent months.

The Myanmar leader shunned the spotlight during his visit to Paris and did not speak to journalists after the meeting with Hollande or after earlier meetings with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault or the MEDEF employers' union.

He was to leave France on Thursday after visiting the palace of Versailles outside Paris.

An advisor to Hollande said the "historic" visit, the first to Paris by a sitting Myanmar head of state, was aimed at showing Yangon's "willingness to normalise relations with the international community".

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the advisor said a number of projects were discussed, including potential French investment in agriculture, water management, transport infrastructure, energy and tourism.

A number of leading rights groups -- including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Reporters Without Borders -- urged Hollande in a joint letter to press Thein Sein on the human rights situation in his country.

"France must not let itself be guided solely by economic interests as major French businesses such as Vinci Bouygues, Total and Orange are in the process of negotiating contracts in Myanmar," they wrote.

In a protest timed with the visit, activists from rights-group Avaaz dressed up as Hollande and Thein Sein made mock toasts with a bottle of champagne before cardboard graves and a banner reading: "Don't let Burma become the next Rwanda".

Trade between France and Myanmar remains at a modest level, with one diplomatic source putting the figure at 18 million euros (S$29.7 million) a year.

French Minister of Foreign Trade Nicole Bricq is scheduled to visit Myanmar later this month. Development Minister Pascal Canfin travelled to the country in March.

Hollande had said he was willing to host Thein Sein after rolling out the red carpet for Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi during her landmark visit to Paris in June 2012.

Since coming to power in 2011, Thein Sein has sought to end his country's isolation with a series of political changes that have won him international praise.

He has freed hundreds of political dissidents, eased media restrictions and welcomed Suu Kyi and her party into parliament.

In response, the European Union has scrapped most of its sanctions, except for an arms embargo, and readmitted Myanmar to a preferential trade scheme.

The United States has also lifted most embargoes and foreign companies are now eager to enter the resource-rich nation, with its perceived frontier market of some 60 million potential consumers.