China visit to France sparks rights outcry
Activists cried foul Wednesday as France kept human rights off the menu for Chinese leader Hu Jintao's state visit this week, a delicate diplomatic encounter set to seal a series of big trade contracts.
As President Nicolas Sarkozy eyes major deals and his upcoming role as president of the G20 power grouping, campaigners urged him to speak in favour of jailed Chinese dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.
"I fear this question will not be brought up at all, or if it is it will just be between two advisers," said Jean-Francois Juillard, director of international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
"Politics is being sacrificed for the good of the economy."
Hu is due to hold two dinners and a series of bilateral talks with Sarkozy during his three-day visit from Thursday, during which contracts worth billions of euros are expected to be announced.
But the French presidency confirmed Wednesday there will be no joint news conference during the three days -- an exceptional departure from state visit procedures -- and remained silent on the subject of Liu.
A presidential official said Wednesday that "no subject is taboo" during the two leaders' talks, however, insisting: "We have long-standing cooperation with China in the area of human rights."
It is the Chinese leader's first official foreign trip since the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu its Peace Prize last month.
It also comes at a delicate moment, for Sarkozy wants to bring China on board with his plans for global currency reform when France takes over the presidency of the Group of 20 power club on November 13, just after the Chinese visit.
The presidential official said the omission of a news conference "was decided by common agreement" with the Chinese delegation.
"It's worrying to see that there will be no chance to ask questions," the head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in France, Jean-Marie Fardeau, told AFP. "It is very disappointing."
Emmanouil Athanasiou, of the Asia section of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, said: "The absence of public discussion on human rights in China will be a serious failing."
France and China have had tense diplomatic relations in recent years, notably over French meetings with the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, but they maintain important economic ties and relations have warmed since 2009.
On his own state visit to Beijing in April, Sarkozy hailed China as a "strategic partner" and Hu has made warm comments about France in the run-up to this week's visit.
"In taking the presidency of the G8 and G20 you are going to bear the heavy responsibility of guiding the discussions in these groupings," HRW said in an open letter to Sarkozy on Tuesday.
"We urge you to put respect for human rights at the heart of the principles that the member countries must defend without cease."
France hopes to sign contracts for plane maker Airbus to sell around 100 passenger jets to Beijing and for French participation in the next stages of the Taishan nuclear plant in southern China.
According to the French financial daily Les Echos, nuclear giant Areva hopes to advance the sale to China of two new generation EPR reactors and to win a three-billion-dollar deal to supply Chinese energy group CGNPC with uranium.
The presidential official said a deal is also expected between French insurance giant Axa and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world's biggest bank by market value.
And another contract may be signed involving French oil giant Total.
© 2010 AFP