By Julien Ponthus
PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande will aim to balance French concerns over Russia's human rights record with a push to boost trade ties during a debut Moscow visit on Thursday that could prove a diplomatic obstacle course.
An encounter in Paris last June between the newly-elected Socialist Hollande and Russia's Vladimir Putin bristled with tension, unlike the cozy meetings between Putin and Hollande's conservative predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.
Aides on both sides want to avoid the full-frontal clash on rights that marked German Chancellor Angela Merkel's trip to Moscow last year, when she accused Moscow of stifling dissent.
Moreover, with the French economy edging closer to recession and domestic demand moribund, Hollande needs all the outside help he can get to kickstart growth, and will be pushing for Russian business to step up investment in France.
Yet everything from Moscow's support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in defiance of the West to Putin's very public relish at actor Gerard Depardieu's decision to take Russian nationality for tax reasons means the scope for misunderstandings is great.
"You can get on with someone without loving them," veteran Russia specialist Helene Carrere d'Encausse said of the strained pragmatism she saw defining the visit, whose high-point is an 1100 GMT joint news conference with Hollande and Putin on.
Hollande aides insist that, aside from Syria, the positions of Paris and Moscow converge in several areas - notably on Mali, where Russia has backed a U.N. resolution which is a key part of French efforts to extricate its soldiers and put African troops in the front line against al Qaeda allies.
Russia sees Tuesday's move by major powers to offer Iran some sanctions relief in return for a halt of some atomic work as a sign that France and other Western states are moving closer to its thinking on an issue that has divided the U.N. Security Council for years.
"In bilateral ties I see no major problems," said Alexei Pushkov, head of foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament's lower chamber.
"From my contacts with the French lawmakers I get the impression they have a calm attitude towards Russia. Of course there is come criticism, but not to the extent that can be heard in the U.S. Congress or the German Bundestag," he added.
French officials insist Putin's embrace of Depardieu after his decision to seek exile from French taxes on the rich will not jar relations - even with the actor's outing this weekend to the Chechnya region where rights groups accuse security services of extrajudicial killings and other abuses.
But Hollande is under pressure at home to raise human rights concerns including the fate of Putin critics such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 49, once Russia's richest man and now serving 13 years jail on fraud and tax evasion charges.
"The last year has been the worst for human rights in Russia in recent memory, and Hollande should not miss this chance to persuade Putin to turn things around," said Rachel Denber of New York-based Human Rights Watch, pointing to new laws which she said restricted public assembly and Internet content in Russia.
The two leaders may broach delicate energy issues, with the European Union seeking to wind down its gas reliance on Russia and Moscow angry over EU efforts to force dominant suppliers such as Russia's Gazprom to sell off infrastructure.
But Paris is keener to focus on raising Russian investment in France, which at around one billion euros only accounts for a 12th of the value of French investment in Russia.
While no major deal is due to be announced, small economic cooperation pacts, plans to facilitate visas and student exchanges are likely to be announced.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Jon Boyle)