- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

PARIS — Five years after “freedom fries,” France appears to be successfully thwarting another boycott threat — this time from rising power China.

The threat is fueled by Chinese anger over the protest-marred Olympic torch relay in Paris this month and suggestions that center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy might stay away from the games’ opening ceremony.

With messages mushrooming on mobile phones and the Internet in China to stay away from French supermarket chain Carrefour, Mr. Sarkozy dispatched three top officials to Beijing this week to stitch up frayed bilateral ties.

Former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who met with President Hu Jintao in Beijing on Thursday, told reporters bilateral relations appeared to be on the mend, and that China was willing to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Tibetans’ spiritual leader.

Beijing’s announcement yesterday that its representative will meet “in the coming days” with the Dalai Lama was apparently a response to pressure from Mr. Sarkozy and other Western leaders.

But the events raise questions about how effective a Chinese boycott against Europe might prove should tensions rise anew — and why France is the particular butt of Chinese ire.

Like the Paris torch relay on April 7, the London leg of it the previous day also was chaotic. Both British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have announced they will stay away from the opening ceremony for the August games.

Some analysts suggest the Chinese have feared a cooling down in bilateral relations since Mr. Sarkozy took over from former French president and Asia enthusiast Jacques Chirac last year. Paris also assumes the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union this July — a month before the games — and a key summit between Chinese and European leaders is scheduled for this fall.

Five years ago, the Chirac administration drew criticism from Americans with its opposition to the war in Iraq, and some U.S. politicians renamed French fries “freedom fries.” But since Mr. Sarkozy, who admires America, became president, relations between the two countries have grown warmer.

Valery Niquet, Asia center director of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, wrote in the daily Le Figaro that “putting on the pressure is … a way for China to ‘warn’ Paris against all tough actions” as EU president in August.

France is an obvious target for Beijing, others say, because pro-Tibetan and human rights groups are particularly active here.

“Tibet questions carry weight within French public opinion,” said Olivier Rozenberg, an analyst at the University of Paris for Political Studies.

Fanning Chinese anger this week, the leftist Paris city hall voted to make the Dalai Lama and jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia honorary citizens — a move from which the French Foreign Ministry quickly distanced itself.

Tensions with China have offered Paris’ wildly popular Mayor Bertrand Delanoe a chance to burnish his international credentials. Credited for a much-praised rental bike program, a fake summer beach and an all-night arts event in the city, the gay Socialist politician is considered a top candidate for a presidential run in four years.

“With the question of China he’s starting to play the national political game, not just the local one,” Mr. Rozenberg said. “The issue of China is a way for him to present himself as a future candidate for the presidential election.”

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