President Nicolas Sarkozy defended Muammar Gaddafi's visit to France on Wednesday, saying the Libyan leader was not considered a dictator in the Arab world.
Gaddafi's first visit to France in 34 years has been accompanied by the signing of several business deals, and human rights groups and the opposition Socialists have accused Sarkozy of putting commercial interests before human rights.
Sarkozy made a point of inviting Gaddafi after Libya in July released six foreign medics convicted of infecting Libyan children with HIV. Paris helped broker the deal.
"Gaddafi is not perceived as a dictator in the Arab world," Sarkozy told Le Nouvel Observateur magazine.
"He is the longest serving head of state in the region, and in the Arab world, that counts," Sarkozy said. "I share the conviction that France has to talk with everyone while standing firm on the values it holds."
Gaddafi took power in 1969 in a military coup and was shunned for decades by the West, which accused him of supporting terrorism.
Libya's ties with Western countries have warmed since it scrapped weapons of mass destruction programs in 2003 and agreed compensation for families of victims of bombings of U.S. and French airliners.
The visit has caused unease in France. An opinion poll this week showed six out of 10 people did not approve of it.
Gaddafi and Sarkozy have given different accounts of their first meeting on Monday. The French leader said he pressed the issue of human rights but Gaddafi said it was not raised. Several government members have said Sarkozy's version was true.
Gaddafi angered Paris by saying in a speech on Tuesday European countries abused the rights of African immigrants.
"When he spoke about human rights ... in our country and in Europe, it was rather pitiful and we condemn it," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told parliament.
Sarkozy and Gaddafi met for a second time on Wednesday. An official at Sarkozy's office said the French president "strongly recommended" that Gaddafi condemn Tuesday's bombings in Algiers, which he later did.
Al Qaeda's North African wing claimed responsibility for the twin car bomb attacks that killed dozens, including at least 11 U.N. staff.
"The Algiers bombings were acts of the devil, condemnable acts," said Gaddafi.
Sarkozy's office said on Monday the two countries had signed contracts worth some 10 billion euros ($14.7 billion). But several firms and industry sources have played down the scale, saying they appeared to be the finalization of deals already reached or estimates of contracts being negotiated.
"This visit is turning into a tragicomic farce," Socialist Arnaud Montebourg told parliament. "It ridicules France, weakens France's voice, tarnishes the universality of its message."
Members of Sarkozy's government, including Kouchner and the junior minister for human rights, have voiced concern at Gaddafi's visit, but Prime Minister Francois Fillon defended it.
" France is not selling its soul. It is doing exactly the opposite because it is putting itself back at the heart of international relations," Fillon said in a speech to businessmen. ( Reuters )