During a press conference Hollande, speaking in French, referred to the Algerian hostage crisis in January in which 10 Japanese nationals died, saying he had "expressed the condolences of the French people to the Chinese people."
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The president, who is in Japan on a three-day state visit, made no attempt to correct his mistake.
A quick-thinking female interpreter fixed the verbal gaffe as she gave her simultaneous translation, rendering the sentence as it had been intended.
However, at least one Japanese journalist with knowledge of French picked up on the error.
Relations between Japan and China are frequently testy, clouded by differences over history and coloured by a territorial dispute.
Polls in both countries show distrust of the other nation is rife and neither side's nationals like to be confused with the other.
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