French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says the infrequency of visits to New Zealand by French leaders does not reflect the relationship, which he describes as "excellent".

No president has ever come here, and the last time a French Prime Minister visited was in 1991. Michel Rocard came to help restore relations which had been shattered by French agents bombing the Rainbow Warrior nuclear-testing protest vessel moored in central Auckland.

Mr Valls was aged 22 at the time and says in a written Q and A with the Herald that the bombing was a "serious error".

"But as Michel Rocard said in 1991: 'Today, without forgetting the past, we must look to the future.' It is precisely the objective of my visit: to ensure that our two countries look, together, towards the future."


A reforming Prime Minister with only two years in the job, Mr Valls will be discussing a proposed free trade deal between Europe and New Zealand with Prime Minister John Key as well as meeting business leaders.

"I believe that France has a lot to learn from New Zealand and from her economic stakeholders," he said.

"I will therefore meet a number of Kiwi chief executives to hear their thoughts on reforms my Government is implementing, to make the French economy more competitive and attractive."

Mr Valls was appointed by Socialist President Francoise Hollande two years ago after their party suffered heavy defeats in local body elections.

While belonging to the Socialist party, Mr Valls' hardline and combative style has a populist appeal.

He has said the Islamic veil symbolises the "enslavement of women".

He is undertaking contentious reforms of the labour market and social welfare system.

Mr Valls was born in Barcelona, Spain, to a Spanish father, an artist, and a Swiss mother.

He moved to France when he was teenager and did not get French citizenship until he was 20.