French president hints at boycott of Olympic opening ceremony

By Jenny Barchfield

Associated Press

PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested Tuesday a boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was a possibility — the first world leader to raise the prospect of punishing China over its ongoing crackdown in Tibet.

The United States, Britain and Germany all condemned China for using force against Tibetan protesters, but they stopped short of threatening to boycott the games or the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

China, meanwhile, showed no sign of letting up on its crackdown. At least two people were killed in a clash between protesters and police in an area of western China that borders on Tibet, state media and human rights groups reported Tuesday.


The clashes were the latest in most sustained uprising against Chinese rule in almost two decades — a challenge that has put China’s human rights record in the international spotlight, embarrassing and frustrating a Communist leadership that had hoped for a smooth run-up to the Olympic Games.

China’s response has also pushed human rights campaigners and governments to re-examine their approach to the Olympics.

Sarkozy, who had faced rising criticism in France for his relative silence on the issue, couched his comments cautiously: He made it clear that skipping the ceremony was one of several possible French responses to the violence in Tibet.

"Our Chinese friends must understand the worldwide concern that there is about the question of Tibet, and I will adapt my response to the evolutions in the situation that will come, I hope, as rapidly as possible," he said in southwest France.

Asked whether he supported a boycott, Sarkozy said he could "not close the door to any possibility."

His aides confirmed that Sarkozy was talking only about the opening ceremony. His ministers have repeatedly said France does not support a boycott of the games.

The timing of Sarkozy’s comments appeared aimed at persuading other world leaders to join him. He travels Wednesday to Britain, host of the 2012 Olympics, and European Union foreign ministers meet Friday.

British officials have ruled out a boycott, saying the government believes close cooperation with China is the best way to influence it.


Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke by telephone last week with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and has said he would meet in May with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Brown’s office said he will attend the closing ceremony of the Olympics as planned.

President Bush has long planned to attend the Beijing Olympics, and the White House said the crackdown in Tibet is not cause for him to cancel.

"We want everyone to refrain from violence. We believe that China should respect minority cultures, in particular in this case, the Tibetan culture," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. Because Bush has a good relationship with Chinese President Hu Jintao, he "is also able to speak very frankly about our concerns about human rights and democracy," she added.

Asked if she could rule out a possible boycott by Bush, Perino said: "I would say at this point I have no change in our position."

Even if Sarkozy fails to convince other leaders, he stands to reap political benefits from his position. The French leader, a conservative who pledged to make fighting for human rights around the world a hallmark of his presidency, has come under domestic pressure to speak out against the violence in Tibet.

Last weekend, an opposition Socialist leader lashed out at Sarkozy’s "deafening silence" on the issue, while Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders urged an opening ceremony boycott by heads of state other VIPs.

The idea has found support among many French people, with a recent poll suggesting 53 percent of respondents said they were "rather favorable" to the idea of Sarkozy shunning the opening ceremony.

Reporters Without Borders’ research director Jean-Francois Julliard said his group welcomed Sarkozy’s comments. He added that to his knowledge, the French leader was the first to go so far in the boycott discussion.


Outspoken French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said last week the opening ceremony boycott idea "is interesting." The president of the EU Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, also said politicians should consider staying away from the ceremony if the violence continues.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he didn’t see the Beijing Games as a political event and disagreed with the idea of a boycott. A German government spokesman echoed that comment, saying a boycott would "distract" from efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.

Reporters Without Borders got headlines when three of its members evaded security at the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony Monday in Greece, and one ran behind a Chinese Olympic official who was speaking and unfurled a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. Later, a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood briefly blocked the path of the torch relay.

As the Olympic torch began its 85,000-mile, 136-day journey across five continents and 20 countries to the games, officials were bracing for more such protests.

China has pledged strict security measures to ensure protests won’t mar its segment of the relay, which is slated to pass through Tibet. The flame is due to be carried to the summit of Mount Everest in May and pass through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in June.

Senior Australian Olympic official Kevan Gosper urged political activists not to target the Beijing Games, which he called "an agent for good, not a panacea for ills."

Spanish Olympic committee member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. said it was "an error and injustice" that the games were being held "hostage" by political groups. He is the son of Juan Antonio Samaranch, who headed the International Olympic Committee when it decided in 2001 to award the games to Beijing.

Even as China’s leaders looked for ways to blunt the international criticism, Beijing has been able to shape its message inside its borders. China’s complete control over its media meant that there was virtually no news Tuesday of the protests that disrupted the flame-lighting ceremony. It also was extremely difficult to verify information about the protests and crackdown in and around Tibet.

The clash reported Tuesday between protesters and police in western China was the latest burst of violence that erupted in Lhasa on March 14 following days of anti-government protests by monks. The government says at least 22 people have died in Lhasa while Tibetan rights groups say nearly 140 were killed, including 19 in neighboring Gansu province.

The Communist leadership has accused the Dalai Lama and his supporters of masterminding the dissent. Many Chinese have had little sympathy for the minority Tibetans and their cause, and instead focused their anger on activists and international critics who sought to link Tibet with the Olympics.

Sarkozy said he told Hu of his concern, asking for restraint and the end of violence through dialogue in Tibet. Sarkozy also disclosed contacts between his office and that of the Dalai Lama.

"I have an envoy who spoke to the authorities who are closest to the Dalai Lama," Sarkozy said. "I want dialogue to begin, and I will gauge my response based on the response that the Chinese authorities give."

The Dalai Lama will be in France during the games to deliver Buddhist lectures, but no meetings are planned with the government, said Wangpo Bashi, secretary of the exiled Tibetan government’s office in Paris.

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