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Sarkozy's Olympic Message

 


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Up until now, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has remained pretty reticent about whether he's planning to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing in August. But on Tuesday, he finally broke his silence and tentatively called on the Chinese authorities to reopen discussions with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

"France will do everything to encourage such talks, " he said. " There are still several months to go (before the opening of the games) and there's no time to lose. '

"It'll be in light of the resumption of such a dialogue that I'll decide what will be the conditions for our participation. "

By explicitly linking his presence at the ceremony with the reopening of talks, Sarkozy has moved on from the only statement he had made on the matter so far a couple of weeks ago, when he said that “all options were open. "

That's a slight change in rhetoric perhaps, but not exactly encouraging to those who have been urging a boycott in protest over China's security clampdown in Tibet.

Sarkozy remained silent over the weekend as his junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, said in a newspaper interview that the president had set three indispensable “conditions" for Chinese authorities to meet before he would confirm his attendance. Yade later backtracked, maintaining she had been misquoted.

And there was not a peep from his office at the Elysée palace on Monday after demonstrators cut short the journey of the Olympic flame as it chaotically passed through the streets of Paris.

Commenting for the first time on those protests, Sarkozy said that although the sight of the athletes and the torch being whistled and jeered had saddened him, it was normal in a democracy that people should be allowed to express their opinions. The solidarity shown with the Dalai Lama and Tibet was understandable and that was proof, as far as he was concerned, of the need to call on China to reopen discussions with the Dalai Lama to “find a political solution. "

While Sarkozy played down the impact Monday's demonstrations might have diplomatically and above all economically on relations between Paris and Beijing, his sentiments were not necessarily being shared elsewhere.

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said the protests had made diplomatic relations between the two countries a little more complicated. A somewhat extraordinary declaration for some of Kouchner's critics, who view it as rather at odds with his track record as a man who has always been a firm supporter of Tibetan rights and counts himself as a friend of the Dalai Lama. Besides, who ever said diplomacy was easy?

There was also some anxiety from within the business community over potential fallout from Monday's incidents. French industrial giants such as Airbus, Alstom and Areva all have billion-euro contracts lined up with the Chinese, but know that Beijing can always take its custom elsewhere.

Sarkozy has given himself some breathing space, upped the ante just a tad and, without promising anything, not excluded the possibility of boycotting the opening ceremony.

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specialising in politics and sport. For more on what's making the headlines here in France log on to http://www.persiflagefrance.com

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