PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Tuesday it was ready to unblock EU membership talks with Turkey on the subject of help for EU regions, marking an improvement in relations between the two countries since the arrival of President Francois Hollande last year.
Turkey began talks on joining the European Union in 2005 but has only completed one of the 35 policy areas, or "chapters", every candidate must conclude to be allowed entry. France has vetoed talks with Turkey on five of those chapters.
While Hollande has stopped short of endorsing Turkey's EU candidacy, he has said it should be judged on political and economic criteria - in contrast to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's position that Turkey did not form part of Europe.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country's half-century wait to become part of the European Union was "unforgivable" and it should be admitted without delay.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, after meeting his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu on the sidelines of a conference on Libya in Paris on Tuesday, said France was now ready to discuss the chapter covering regional policy.
"I confirmed to him that we were ready ... to begin discussions on chapter 22," Fabius told a news conference.
A French diplomatic source described it as "a political signal, a first step."
Turkey had said it was hopeful France would lift its veto on two of the five chapters where it has blocked talks ahead of a potential state visit by Hollande sometime this year.
"We believe that the veto would be lifted gradually for other chapters under the blockage of France, hopefully starting from chapter 22," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara.
Accession talks have all but ground to a halt due to an intractable dispute over Cyprus, the divided island state that Turkey does not recognise, and opposition from core EU members France and Germany.
"We hope this will give new momentum to the European Union's relationship with Turkey," French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said. "France now expects Turkey to contribute concretely to this new process."
Talks have also been blocked by the European Commission, which says Turkey does not yet meet required standards on human rights, freedom of speech and religion.
Despite the slow progress and waning domestic support, Turkey has continued to push for full membership of the union and has said it wants to join before 2023, the centenary of its founding as a republic.
(Reporting by John Irish; Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Editing by Susan Fenton)