France chases economic opportunities in Macri's Argentina

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Argentina's President Mauricio Macri received fresh endorsement of his new-broom economic measures on Wednesday when French President Francois Hollande flew in to Buenos Aires with 30 business leaders to sniff out investment opportunities.

The visit reflected a turnaround in Argentina's global profile since Macri took power two months ago and immediately set about mending diplomatic ties and his country's tattered credit profile.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi dropped in last week, and US President Barack Obama is to follow up with his own visit next month.

The procession of leaders is providing a fillip to Macri's goal of returning Argentina -- Latin America's third-biggest economy -- to the international fold.

Hollande's arrival on the second leg of a South American tour suffered a minor hiccup, however, when his presidential jet, an Airbus A330, was grounded in Peru with mechanical problems. A French government Falcon jet was dispatched to fly him and his delegation to Buenos Aires.

The French and Argentinian presidents repaired to Macri's Casa Rosa palace for discussions and to sign what aides said were around 20 cooperation agreements.

Afterward, Hollande praised Macri's reforms.

"You have sought to put Argentina in a new place: more open, more credible," he told a joint news conference. "France is ready to back you."

Hollande also said France was supporting Macri's bid to settle with foreign creditors, some of which are holding out for full payment of sovereign debt Argentina defaulted on 15 years ago.

Macri, in an interview with AFP on Monday, had emphasized the "enormous effort" his government was making on the issue.

Argentina must end its conflicts, "come back to the world and gain access to financing," he said.

The country has offered to pay $6.5 billion of the total $9 billion owed to clear up the debt dispute. Several investors have accepted the terms, but two major US hedge funds are pushing for full repayment.

Macri's predecessor, Cristina Kirchner, had refused to pay the hedge funds, calling them "vultures."

Kirchner had also alienated the United States by courting Iran and Venezuela, and kept ties with Britain combative over the Falkland Islands.

Macri has brought in sweeping changes, getting rid of currency controls and barriers to foreign companies repatriating profits.

On the diplomatic front, he has been working towards "mature, intelligent and mutually beneficial" relations.

Hollande's visit was the first by a French president since 1997. None took place between 2003 and 2015, the years when Kirchner and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, ruled.

Around 250 French companies have operations in Argentina, including Total, Danone, Renault and Peugeot. France's trade surplus with the South American country runs to around one billion euros.