A threat against French business interests in China is gathering steam after the launch of a campaign to boycott the supermarket chain, Carrefour. In a message circulating on mobile ‘phones and the Internet, the company has been accused of providing financial backing to the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama.
Carrefour has denied the rumors as “false accusations" and has stressed that it has always supported Beijing's candidature for this summer's Olympic games. Although the campaign doesn't have official backing, China's government hasn't exactly condemned it either.
On Tuesday Jiang Lu, a spokeswoman from the foreign affairs ministry, said France should pay attention to how Chinese citizens felt.
"We hope France will listen carefully to the voice of the Chinese people on a number of recent problems and take an objective and impartial position, respecting the facts and distinguishing between right and wrong, as have a number of countries that understand and support the measures taken by the Chinese government, " she said.
"Friendship requires an effort from both sides, " she added. “The people can express their opinions if they respect the law, and recently they've been doing just that. It all has a reason, "
For its part, the French foreign ministry has downplayed the threats saying the call for a boycott of French goods wouldn't have an effect on economic relations between the two countries.
Recent events though won't really have helped those relations, at least not as far as Beijing is concerned. First there was the attempt to disrupt the ceremony in March to light the torch in Greece at the site of Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient games.
That protest over China's human rights record was orchestrated by members of the Paris-based Reporters sans frontières (Reporters without borders) and its outspoken general secretary, Robert Ménard. He quickly found himself on a ‘plane back to France, while the Chinese, broadcasting events back home with a slight delay, hastily slotted in some still shots of ancient ruins to avoid exposing the domestic audience to the edited “live" kafuffle.
Then there were demonstrations in Paris as the torch made its way through the streets of the French capital. Once again human rights, China's security clampdown on Tibetan monks and its refusal to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama, were at the heart of the protests.
And matters have certainly not been helped by the refusal of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to rule out a boycott of the opening ceremony. His policy of “it's too early to take a decision" was made even more confusing by claims and later denials that he had set reopening of talks with the Dalai Lama as a condition for his attendance.
Anti-French sentiment has also been stoked up by the domestic media in China with pictures of pro-Tibetan protesters trying to grab the torch from a disabled Chinese athlete during the Paris relay juxtaposed with a reminder of how good Franco-Sino relations were under the former French president, Jacques Chirac.
Carrefour is not the only French company that has been targeted by Chinese Internauts, but with more than 120 hypermarkets and 280 discount stores throughout the country, it certainly has potentially the most to lose. Other French companies coming under threat from similar campaigns include luxury goods firm LVMH and cosmetics giant L'Oréal.
The great and the good might insist that sport and politics shouldn't be mixed as they take the moral highroad, but that's going to require a hard sell to convince the French business community and appease what appears to be a growing portion of the Chinese public.
Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specialising in politics, sport and travel. For more on what's making the headlines here in France log on to http://www.persiflagefrance.com