* First visit by a French foreign minister in three decades
* Opportunity to explore closer EU-Cuba relations
* Dozens of French firms active in Cuba
PARIS, March 19 (Reuters) - France’s foreign minister said on Wednesday he would soon travel to Cuba, the first such visit in 30 years and a sign of the quickening pace of improving ties between the European Union and Havana.
Cuba this month accepted a proposal by the EU to open negotiations on a new political accord, saying it was willing to talk about human rights as part of discussions that would end what it considers a one-sided relationship with Europe.
On Feb. 10, the EU agreed to begin negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since it lifted sanctions on the communist-ruled country in 2008.
“I will soon go to Cuba, which is something new,” Laurent Fabius said during a news conference with his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Alberto Figueiredo.
Diplomats said the visit would take place before the summer. It aims to assess the intentions of the Cuban government while giving “more substance” to economic ties, the diplomats said.
Cuba has been subject to a U.S. embargo for five decades. It is eager to eliminate the EU’s “common position”, enacted in December 1996, which places human rights and democracy conditions on improved economic relations.
To do so, the two sides will have to reach a new accord that is agreeable to all 28 member states, including Poland and the Czech Republic, which have taken a harder line on Cuba given their own communist pasts.
After more than a year of discussions, EU foreign ministers decided in February to seek better ties with Havana to support the Caribbean island nation’s market-oriented reforms and to position European companies for any transition to a more open economy.
Since Fabius took office in 2012 he has tried to shift more of France’s diplomatic focus towards winning contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak, as Paris looks to find growth opportunities overseas.
About 60 French firms already operate in Cuba including Pernod Ricard, Accor, Bouygues and Total. (Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)