Mutual love of rugby helps Key-Sarkozy talks

By Catherine Field

Pomp and ceremony joined with a mutual love of rugby in John Key's one-day visit to Paris overnight, where the prime minister pitched for a seat for New Zealand on the UN Security Council and discussed the outlook for trade.

Key, arriving from London, made full use of New Zealand's hosting of the World Cup to ease contacts in a country where rugby, which once had only regional support, has gained a passionate, national following.

"Ovalie" - literally, the game of the oval ball - featured in many of Key's talks with French leaders, where the aim was to lift New Zealand's political and trade profile in the first top-level contact in four years.

In a 45-minute session with President Nicolas Sarkozy, Key lobbied for New Zealand's bid for one of the Security Council seats that are rotated among non-permanent members of the UN.

"That's something we are hopeful will be successful but that's obviously a contested issue, with Turkey also putting its name into the ring," he said after his meeting with Sarkozy.

Turkey has become a big player in European politics, through its bid to join the European Union (EU) and its clout in the Middle East.

Key said he was impressed by Christine Lagarde, the economy and industry minister, who like him had a highly successful business career before entering politics.

Lagarde is playing a linchpin role in France's presidency of the G8 and G20 this year, where trade imbalances and financial reforms are the hottest issues.

"We had a pretty good discussion about the WTO and Dohar," Key said, referring to the World Trade Organisation and the Dohar round of talks to liberalise world trade.

"She was quite downbeat about any progress that was being made."

A failure at Dohar could have repercussions for trade liberalisers like New Zealand, which is worried by access to the giant EU market for its agricultural policies.

"She understood our position (about access) and she wasn't negative, so that's a step in the right direction," said Key.

Bilateral trade between New Zealand and the 27 EU nations amounts to about $12b each year, on the same scale as commerce with China and the United States.

On the French side, diplomats said France looked to New Zealand's influence in the South Pacific to support a referendum in New Caledonia in 2014. The vote, which will see the population determine whether the territory will become independent or remain French, is the climax of a political process sparked by bloodshed from 1985 to 1988.

Key's meeting with Sarkozy marked the first face-to-face contact between a New Zealand prime minister and a French president since 2007.

Key was given the full red-carpet treatment at all his ports of call. At the Elysee presidential palace, he was greeted by sabre-saluting Republican Guards, dressed in gleaming brass breastplates and feathered helmets, as Sarkozy waited at the top of palace steps, his palm outstretched.

The prime minister gave Sarkozy the gift of a set of Rugby World Cup cufflinks and invited him to come to New Zealand to see the tournament.

"It depends on the demands on his time, and maybe (if there is) a French-All Black final," he said.

Key also joshed with Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, from the rugby-mad southwest. Juppe quipped that other teams had no chance, as "of course, Les Bleus are going to win," he told the Herald.

He also met Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who is married to a Welshwoman and helped defuse the crisis over the claimed assault of Matthieu Bastareaud in les Bleus' tour of New Zealand in 2009.

"Sport transcends many boundaries," Key said.

"Rugby is a very important sport in France and they are good at it - from our perspective sometimes a little too good.

"But one of the things we are doing with the Rugby World Cup is try to make sure it is not just a rugby event but use it as also as an event to showcase New Zealand."

Around 11,000 French fans are expected to fly to New Zealand for the World Cup and stay for between two and four weeks, making them the third biggest foreign contingent and an affluent market, said Key.

Key arrived in Europe on Sunday and travelled straight to northern France for World War I ceremonies at Le Quesnoy and the battlefield of the Somme, before heading to London to meet the Queen and his British counterpart, David Cameron.

On Thursday, he returns to Britain for talks with British political and business leaders before attending the royal wedding on Friday.

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