If Europe can secure a free trade deal with Canada, it would lay the groundwork for a planned, much larger accord with the United States, French and Canadian leaders said Thursday.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was in Ottawa for talks with his opposite number Stephen Harper, and both were upbeat about the chances of a deal between Canada and the 27-nation European Union.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made a trans-Atlantic trade pact with Europe one of the priorities of his second term, and America's northern neighbor is keen not to find itself sidelined in upcoming talks.

"I think it's important for Canada to sign a deal with the European Union in and of itself," Harper told a joint press conference in Ottawa.

"It obviously would be an added benefit to us to get this done long before the Americans do such a deal," he added.