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Sarkozy defends decision to attend Olympics

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday defended his decision to attend the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, saying it would be wrong to “humiliate” China with a boycott.
Japan G8 Sarkozy
A day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to back down from his threat to boycott the Olympics, he defends his decision to attend, saying it would be wrong to “humiliate” China with a boycott.Michel Euler / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday defended his decision to attend the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, saying it would be wrong to “humiliate” China with a boycott.

But he also insisted he would raise human rights concerns with the Chinese leadership and chastised Beijing for pressure aimed at persuading him to drop plans to meet with exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama.

“I happen to think that humiliating China is not the best way to respect human rights,” Sarkozy told critics in the European Parliament. “I don’t think you can boycott 1.3 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population.”

Despite Sarkozy’s decision, French relations which China were strained this week when China’s ambassador to Paris, Kong Quan, said a possible meeting between Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama this year would have “serious consequences.”

“There are things I will not say because China deserves respect, but there are things that China must not tell European countries,” Sarkozy told the Parliament. “It’s not for China to set my agenda, to say who I will meet.”

Kong’s comments were widely interpreted in France as a threat to French investments and exports in China. At a news conference after his parliament address, Sarkozy blasted the ambassador’s words as “clumsy” and “misplaced.”

U.S. President George W. Bush also has decided to attend the opening of the Games. He said this week it would be an “affront to the Chinese people” if he stayed away. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he will skip the opener but attend the closer. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have said they plan to stay away.

Sarkozy’s announcement Wednesday that he will attend the Aug. 8 ceremony opening of the Beijing Olympics, after previously suggested he might boycott the event, sparked widespread dismay from human rights campaigners.

Criticism in the European Parliament was led by Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who suggested the decision was taken in order to promote French exports in China. Cohn-Bendit told Sarkozy the decision was “a disgrace.”

“I will go, I will talk about human rights, I will defend human rights,” Sarkozy said in reply. The French leader said he’d consulted with all 27 European Union states before making his decision and received their support.

“China can be a factor for peace and security in the world, so can we boycott China at this time, which is something so important for a billion people?” he asked.

Sarkozy told reporters he’d asked Cohn-Bendit to draw up a list of human rights concerns which he would present to Chinese leaders.

By engaging China, Sarkozy said Europe could aim to secure Chinese support to end violence in Darfur and isolate Iran, if it doesn’t change it nuclear program.

China is a supporter of the Sudanese government, which is blamed by Western governments for much of the bloodshed in the troubled province of Darfur. China also is part of an international group seeking to persuade Iran to bring its nuclear program in line with U.N. norms, but has been reluctant to support Western demands for stronger sanctions against Tehran.

Sarkozy had been the first world leader to raise the possibility of skipping the ceremony to protest China’s crackdown in Tibet, after riots and protests there in March. That would have been a slap in the face to China’s communist leadership, eager to use the Games to show off the country’s power and clout.

But the statement Wednesday from Sarkozy’s office, issued after he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit of industrialized powers in Japan, made no mention of Tibet or human rights.

It said France wants to “deepen its strategic partnership with China” — which is a major client for European plane manufacturer Airbus, as well as French companies from nuclear giant Areva to transport and engineering company Alstom.