View of the room of drawings at the Louvre Museum in Paris in April 2006. France is debating whether it is right to lend its cultural artifacts internationally. ((Jacques Brinon/Associated Press))

Abu Dhabi is in talks with the Louvreto open a satellite of the famed Paris museum in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

But word of the project has sparked a fierce debatein arts circles in France over whether museums with their priceless collections should be for sale.

French newspapers are reporting a deal to lend artifacts for a satellite museum in Abu Dhabi could be worth 500 million euros ($762 million).

That has prompted charges that France is trading its heritage for profit and to further its political interests in the region.

"If we care about preserving and displaying our heritage, by what principle should we be using works of art as currency of exchange?" three of France's leading art historians wrote in Le Monde newspaper.

An online petition stating "museums are not for sale" has gathered thousands of signatures.

The Gulf state is a key market for French luxury goods, a supplier of oil and potential buyer of Airbus Industrie products.

"You don't have to look far for the reasons for this cultural escapade," the Liberation daily said in an editorial. "Oil is expensive and the Airbus has been selling badly recently."

The Culture Ministry in Paris has made little comment on the talks, but a United Arab Emirates official said talks are still at a very early stage.

Abu Dhabi plans to create a $27-billion UScultural district on uninhabited Saadiyat Island, just offshore from the city.

It wants to attract branches of five prestigious art museums in an ambitious plan to turn the city into a tourist destination.

So far, the only group to sign a deal is the New York-based Guggenheim which is in the midst of building a $400-million USmuseum designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry.

Louvre director Henri Loyrette told Le Monde that Emirates officials are negotiating for loans of artifacts from all civilizations and eras, as well as use of the Louvre name.

Although the deal with Abu Dhabi has raised ire from French intellectual circles, the Louvre has already relaxed its rules against international lending of works.

The museum already has begun lending art to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in a three-year plan. It also will lend its works to the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec for an exhibit in July 2008.

Another French museum, the Pompidou Centre, will lend contemporary art to a counterpart in Shanghai, China.

The director of France's national museum service, Francine Mariani-Ducray, said France has an obligation toshare itsvast wealth of art treasures.

"Our works of art should circulate in the world," she said.

With files from the Associated Press