With troops in Romania, France seeks to capitalise on military ties

By Luiza Ilie and John Irish

BUCHAREST/PARIS (Reuters) - France is looking to press ahead with lucrative military contracts in Romania after sending battle group tanks and an air defence system to the country as part of efforts to bolster NATO's ranks on the eastern flank, diplomatic sources said.

Paris leads a NATO battle group in Romania of about 800 troops, including 500 French soldiers alongside others from the Netherlands and Belgium. Paris has also deployed a surface-to-air missile system.

Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna will visit the base on Friday alongside her Dutch and Romanian counterparts before holding talks with Romanian officials, including President Klaus Iohannis.

Those discussions will centre on the war in Ukraine, grain exports and bilateral ties, notably on the military front, French officials said.

"We have a very strong strategic relationship with Romania. It's been 15 years, but the reality is that since we deployed the Leclerc (tank) battalion and the Mamba (SAMP/T air-defence system) the partnership has become more dense," a French diplomatic source said ahead of the visit.

"So we hope to cement that with cooperation on industrial projects that are very attractive," the source said.

Top of that list would be to finalise a deal worth around 1.2 billion euros ($1.35 billion) to sell four warships to help ensure security in the Black Sea.

It has been in negotiation since 2019, but has stalled partly due to rising costs of raw materials.

Romania's navy is the least modernised of its military branches. The country, a NATO state since 2004 and EU member since 2007, has ramped up its defence spending to 2.5% of GDP this year.

The two countries have also signed a letter of intent regarding Bucharest potentially buying submarines, but little has happened since a change in the defence minister last year.

"We are going to push ahead on this (warship) dossier," said the diplomat. "But not just to talk about that, there are also discussions on the submarines."

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Nick Macfie)