President Nicolas Sarkozy defended a visit by Muammar Gaddafi on Monday, just hours after his top human rights official said France was not a doormat on which the Libyan leader could wipe off the blood of his crimes.
Secretary of State for Human Rights Rama Yade, a junior member of the centre-right government, had criticized Gaddafi's arrival on World Human Rights Day, saying France should demand guarantees on human rights when concluding trade deals.
Sarkozy denied he had betrayed France's human rights heritage by inviting Gaddafi, and said securing lucrative contracts for French firms would not prevent him championing human rights.
I am also here to fight at the side of French businesses and factories so that we have the contracts and orders that the others were so happy to have in our stead, without in any way renouncing my convictions on human rights, Sarkozy said.
He expected to sign contracts worth around 10 billion euros ($14.66 billion), including a seawater desalination plant driven by nuclear power, arms cooperation and other deals, Sarkozy told reporters after briefly receiving Gaddafi at his Elysee palace.
Gaddafi's son said in an interview at the weekend that Libya would buy over 3 billion euros worth of Airbus planes and was negotiating the possible purchase of Dassault Aviation-built Rafale fighter jets and of a nuclear reactor made by Areva.
Business deals announced during state visit do not always lead to actual new contracts. Industry sources said on Monday it was not clear how much concrete new business was on the table.
Gaddafi, who was to meet Sarkozy again for dinner later, is set to try to use his visit to improve his credentials as a statesman given his improved ties with the West in recent years.
Few details of his schedule have been announced, but he is due to meet Sarkozy on at least one other occasion during his five-day stay and will entertain in his Bedouin Arab tent pitched in the garden of the presidential guesthouse.
But his visit has sparked controversy in France.
France is not just a trade balance, Yade told the daily Le Parisien, adding that France should not only sign business deals with Gaddafi but also demand guarantees from him on human rights in his country.
Colonel Gaddafi must understand that our country is not a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or not, can come and wipe the blood of his crimes off his feet. France should not receive this kiss of death, she said.
Sarkozy defended Yade's right to speak out, saying : She is secretary of state for human rights and it's perfectly normal that she has a conviction on this issue which, moreover, I share, and I reminded the Libyan president of that.
Sarkozy made a point of inviting Gaddafi after Libya in July released six foreign medics accused of infecting children with HIV and who had been detained for years.
Gaddafi has rarely been invited to Western capitals. But ties with Tripoli have improved since it scrapped its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003 and agreed compensation for families of victims of bombings of U.S. and French airliners.
An IFOP poll for Paris Match magazine found that 61 percent of respondents did not approve of Gaddafi's visit.
French Foreign Minister Kouchner, one of a handful of leftists in Sarkozy's centre-right government, said he was resigned to Gaddafi's visit, and that France had to be vigilant on rights while also defending its economic interests.