French electricity giant EDF will join Russia's Gazprom in supporting the South Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday.
The announcement came amid talks Putin is holding with French officials on expanding cooperation between the two countries in the energy, automotive, transportation and pharmaceutical sectors.
The South Stream pipeline competes with another proposed pipeline known as Nabuccco, which is backed by the United States and the European Union. Nabucco would bring gas to Europe from the Caspian Sea region, competing with the Russian gas supplies.
Putin called France a "special partner" as his country sought French investment help to modernize its economy.
The Russian prime-minister's two-day trip, however, was overshadowed by the possibility that France is considering the lucrative sale of a military amphibious assault vessel _ a prospect that has made some of Russia's neighbors nervous.
Officials gave no indication of whether the Mistral, which can carry 16 attack helicopters, was discussed during Putin's talks with his French counterpart, Francois Fillon.
Such a ship would allow Russia to land thousands of troops quickly on foreign soil. The possibility has alarmed Georgia as well as the three Baltic NATO countries _ Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. All four former Soviet republics now have tense ties with Moscow.
Putin had breakfast Friday with former French President Jacques Chirac, but he was not meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was in Brazil, or with the French defense minister or foreign minister.
Instead, he and Fillon were expected to sign a series of financial cooperation agreements during their talks Friday at the Chateau de Rambouillet, once a royal and now a presidential residence west of Paris.
Putin told Fillon that France was a "special partner" for Russia. "Recently, we have moved ahead significantly in this (economic) cooperation," he said.
Specifically, some 25 agreements were being signed. The major ones included a cooperation accord between France's electricity giant, EDF, and Gazprom on French participation in the proposed South Stream gas pipeline.
French carmaker Renault agreed to provide financial aid to Russia to help restructure the country's largest carmaker, Avtovaz, in which Renault has a 25 percent stake. The French economic daily Les Echos said the aid was valued at euro240 million ($358 million) but that Renault would not increase its stake in Avtovaz as the Russians had been seeking. In return, Renault would gain increased production capacity at the Avtovaz's Togliatti factory for cars for the Russian market.
France's Total oil giant signed a contract with Russia's Zarubezhneft, but no details were immediately available.
Although no agreement was signed, Gazprom head Alexei Miller and executives of France's GDF Suez discussed energy cooperation Thursday. Progress was made on negotiations for GDF to take a minority stake of 9 percent in the Nord Stream proposed gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
Putin and Fillon also will discuss global warming ahead of next month's U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen. Valero said France was expecting Russia to make an effort to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases and to help facilitate an agreement at Copenhagen.
Putin, who arrived in France late Thursday, was traveling with several key Russian ministers and a large delegation of business executives.