(Adds meeting with Fidel Castro, shipping agreement, paragraphs 7-11)
By Elizabeth Pineau
HAVANA, May 11 (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande on Monday urged an end to the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba and envisioned a larger French role in Cuba’s engagement with the West during the first visit by a French head of state to Cuba.
Cuba is in foreign policy talks with both the European Union and the United States amid intense world interest in Cuba following detente with Washington in December.
Hollande, traveling with a host of French business executives, is the first serving Western European leader to visit Cuba since Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez came in 1986, and he said he expected others to soon follow his example.
“Anything France can do to make sure ... the opening is confirmed, so that the measures that have so harmed the development of Cuba can be rescinded, so that the identity of each country is respected, this is what has to be done,” Hollande said in an exchange with students at Havana University.
Hollande previously said his trip had “special meaning” since U.S. President Barack Obama reversed more than half a century of hostile U.S. policy toward Cuba in December, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would restore diplomatic ties.
Obama, a Democrat, has asked Congress to remove the embargo but has encountered resistance from Republicans, who control both houses.
France has long opposed the U.S. embargo and lifting it would help most French companies doing business here, although an end would also increase competition for French grain exporter Groupe Soufflet, which has a niche wheat market in Cuba.
French companies including Soufflet, Air France, telecom operator Orange, hotelier Accor and distiller Pernod Ricard are accompanying him.
While here French shipping company CMA CGM announced an agreement with Cuba to operate a logistics center at the port of Mariel, the heart of a special development zone designed to attract foreign investment.
Hollande met for an hour with retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 88, whose 1959 revolution is generally well regarded in France, especially within Hollande’s Socialist Party.
“I had before me a man who made history. There is a debate on what could be his place, his responsibilities. But coming to Cuba, I wanted to meet Fidel Castro,” Hollande told reporters before he was to attend an official welcoming ceremony and meet privately with Raul Castro, who took over when his brother retired in 2008 due to poor health. (Editing by Daniel Trotta, W Simon and David Gregorio)