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Hollande maintains Gulf trip, defence minister to stay home

Paris - 

President Francois Hollande has decided to go ahead with a visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), despite French forces being engaged in combat in Mali, aides said Monday.

Hollande was due to fly to Abu Dhabi overnight Monday for a trip that is, by a quirk of timing, aimed primarily at selling Rafale fighter jets like those that have been involved in bombing Islamist rebel bases in Mali.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will not accompany Hollande on the trip, as initially planned, but Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will be making the journey. The French team is due back in Paris on Wednesday morning.

Aides to Hollande defended his decision to leave France at such a critical time, insisting he would be kept fully informed about developments in Mali.

French forces have, since Friday, been supporting an offensive by Malian government troops against Islamist groups which have controlled the north of the vast country since April 2012.

"Even at distance, the decisions will be taken by the president as commander in chief of the armed forces," an official said.

During his visit, Hollande will have a meeting with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who will also be in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

Hollande's decision to maintain the Gulf trip reflects its commercial significance. Apart from a potential first overseas sale of the Rafale, France is keen to ensure oil firm Total retains a place in the Gulf state's largest onshore oil concession.

Hollande is to be accompanied by a large group of business leaders as well as Fabius, Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg and Environment Minister Delphine Batho.

More than 500 French companies are based in the UAE, which had nearly four billion euros of investments in France last year.

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