By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - France's foreign minister met with Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday during the first visit to the island by such a high-ranking French official in 31 years and a sign of the quickening pace of improving ties between the European Union and Havana.
Laurent Fabius said he discussed politics, human rights, market-oriented reforms in Cuba and bilateral relations in what he characterized as "a long conversation" with Castro.
"We want to push forward our relations in the areas of culture, education, economics and politics," Fabius, a former prime minister, told reporters at the end of a one-day visit to the communist-run Caribbean country.
"Of course, we have different points of view on certain issues, which doesn't stop us from exchanging perspectives and moving forward," he said.
Earlier in the day, Fabius met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, various Cabinet ministers, Cardinal Jaime Ortega and French businessmen.
Since Fabius took office in 2012, he has tried to shift more of France's diplomatic focus toward winning contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak, as Paris looks to find growth opportunities overseas.
France is looking to expand its business ties with Latin America and sees Cuba as an important player in the region, given that it hosted a regional summit this year and both Brazil and Mexico are increasing their presence in the country.
"There are many French firms already here, but it's necessary that this presence is strengthened and our Cuban friends agree," Fabius said.
Fabius was scheduled to return to France on Saturday evening, having previously visited Mexico.
Bilateral trade last year was $388 million (280 million euros), according to the French government, involving mainly wheat exports to Cuba.
Construction and engineering firm Bouygues, beverage maker Pernod-Ricard, the Accor tourism corporation and energy company Total, all have investments in Cuba and are among 60 French firms operating in the country.
France has also been leading efforts by the Paris Club of creditor nations to resume debt negotiations with Havana, broken off in 2000.
The EU agreed in February to begin negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since it lifted sanctions on the country in 2008.
The talks are scheduled to begin on April 29 in Havana, according to European diplomats, who said the French foreign minister's visit would test the waters.
Cuba has been subject to a U.S. embargo for five decades. It is eager to eliminate the EU's "common position," enacted in December 1996, which links human rights and democratic conditions to improved economic relations.
To do so, the two sides will have to reach a new accord agreeable to all 28 EU member states, including Poland and the Czech Republic, which have taken a harder line on Cuba given their own communist pasts.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Dan Grebler, James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)