By Julien Ponthus
MOSCOW (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande will raise concerns about Russia's human rights record with Vladimir Putin on Thursday but he sought to play down differences that might undermine trade ties.
Hollande, who began his 24-hour debut trip to Moscow by giving a radio interview, hopes to strike a balance between a robust defense of human rights and the desire to boost France's economy by increasing business links with Russia.
An encounter in Paris last June between President Putin and the newly elected Socialist 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.
"We will discuss this with President Putin. I would not like to take a provocative approach," the French leader told the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station in an interview dubbed over with a Russian translation.
"Questions of democracy and human rights are just as important as other aspects of our cooperation."
He said Paris always sought to raise such questions with foreign partners in a friendly way and went on to describe Russia and France as old allies united by history and culture.
Hollande is under pressure in France 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 French leader said he would also discuss with Putin foreign conflicts including Afghanistan and Syria, reiterating that Paris was respecting a European arms embargo to Syria.
He indicated that he favored a gradual lifting of the arms embargo, suggesting that "in a few weeks we will be able to find a political solution (on the arms embargo issue) which could stop the escalation of the conflict."
PUTTING DIFFERENCES ASIDE
With the French economy edging closer to recession and domestic demand moribund, Hollande needs all the outside help he can get to kick-start growth.
At around 1 billion euros, investment by Russian companies in France accounts for only a 12th of the French money that has flowed into Russia, a balance Paris wants to redress.
Yet everything - from Moscow's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Putin's relish at French actor Gerard Depardieu's decision to take Russian nationality for tax reasons - means the scope for misunderstandings is great.
Depardieu visited the Chechnya region at the weekend where human rights groups accuse security services of extrajudicial killings and other abuses. Hollande deflected questions about the actor during the interview with Ekho Moskvy, making clear he did not want the passport issue to affect relations with Russia.
"I am sure that the President of Russia made a decision that doesn't infringe on our interests," Hollande said.
"If he (Depardieu) decided to leave the country, if he loves Russia and Russia so loves Gerard Depardieu, then it is understandable. But still Depardieu loves France, which recognizes him as a great actor."
Hollande aides say that Paris and Moscow have similar views in several areas - notably on Mali, where Russia backed a U.N. resolution key to French efforts to extricate its soldiers and put African troops in the front line against al Qaeda allies.
Russia also saw Tuesday's offer by world powers of some sanctions relief to Iran in return for suspension of some atomic work as a sign Western states are moving closer to its views on an issue that has long divided the U.N. Security Council.
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.
(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel and Thomas Grove, Writing by Mark John and Timothy Heritage, Editing by Jon Boyle)