French president Francois Hollande called for the ending of the US trade embargo on Cuba during a brief visit to the island.
He said France “will be a faithful ally” as Cuba reforms its centrally planned economy and tries to re-enter the global economic system.
Mr Hollande’s one-day trip made him the first French president to visit Cuba since it became an independent country.
Along with a large contingent of French executives, he is focused on strengthening business and diplomatic relations five months after the declaration of detente between Havana and Washington.
Mr Hollande met President Raul Castro during his brief visit to the island.
The French leader said he also met for about 50 minutes with Mr Castro’s older brother and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who talked about climatic problems, agriculture and sanctions against Cuba.
Mr Hollande said during an encounter with French residents in Cuba that Fidel Castro looked physically “deteriorated”, but that they had “an easy conversation”.
Senior diplomats from Japan, the EU, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia have visited the island in recent months in bids to stake out or maintain ties with an island that suddenly looks like a brighter economic prospect amid warming US-Cuba relations.
In Washington yesterday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama “has indicated that he does not envision a trip to Cuba any time in the near future. But I certainly wouldn’t rule it out over the course of the next year.”
Almost all have been accompanied by business people interested in Cuba’s push to draw more than $8bn in new foreign investment as part of a broader, gradual economic liberalisation.
The delegations are also working to ensure that Cuba does not forget its old friends in what eventually could be a new era of increased business with the US.
Speaking at the University of Havana, Mr Hollande said: “France will do everything it can to aid the process of opening Cuba and help get rid of measures that have so seriously damaged Cuba’s development.”
During his address he announced plans to increase academic exchanges with Cuba and mutually recognise the other country’s university degrees.
It was attended by First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man widely expected to succeed President Raul Castro when he steps down in 2018.
Mr Hollande broke from his official schedule and walked down Cuba’s elegant but crumbling Paseo promenade, chatting with passers-by and startled French tourists who took photos with him.
The president, who is on a tour of the Caribbean, was accompanied by five of his ministers and nearly two dozen French executives, including representatives of Pernod Ricard drinks, hotel company Accor, Air France and supermarket Carrefour.
Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and France are Cuba’s biggest trading partners within the EU, which is the island’s second-largest economic partner with a combined €4bn a year in trade in food, machinery and other goods.