Sarkozy walks a tightrope with China over Dalai Lama

7th December 2008, Comments 0 comments

The French president sat down with the Tibetan spiritual leader in Gdansk on the sidelines of a gathering of Nobel Peace prizewinners.

Paris -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy engaged in a delicate balancing act at the weekend by seeking to downplay his meeting with the Dalai Lama, hoping to defuse China's anger and avert economic reprisals.

Sarkozy sat down with the Tibetan spiritual leader on Saturday in the northern Polish city of Gdansk, on the sidelines of a gathering of Nobel Peace prizewinners.

The first French president to hold an official meeting with the Dalai Lama had taken pains to accommodate Beijing by choosing Gdansk, 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) away from Paris, for the talks.

But the salvos came from Beijing on Sunday when the foreign ministry summoned the French ambassador for a meeting to hear an official protest and state media blasted Sarkozy for an "unwise move".

"This has undermined the political foundations of Sino-French and Sino-European ties," Chinese state-run CCTV quoted Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei as saying.

French newspapers published front-page photos of the Dalai Lama draping Sarkozy with the traditional Tibetan white scarf or "kata," with the Journal du Dimanche weekly making a play on words on "kata" as short for "catastrophe".

The half-hour meeting was held after China angrily cancelled an EU-summit that was to be held under France's EU presidency in Lyon on December 1.

China considers talks with the Dalai Lama as meddling in internal affairs and has branded the Buddhist leader a separatist, despite his claims that he is seeking autonomy and not independence for the Himalayan region.

"The Dalai Lama confirmed what I already knew, that he will not demand independence for Tibet, and I told him how important I thought it was to pursue dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese authorities," Sarkozy said after the meeting.

"Let's not make things tense, the world doesn't need it," he added, in a veiled appeal to Beijing.

Sarkozy has been struggling to strike a balance between keeping relations with China on an even keel while deflecting criticism at home of being soft on Beijing, on the issue of human rights.

Just before the meeting, Sarkozy asserted: "I am free to decide on my agenda as president of the French republic. As president of the European council, I represent values, convictions. It is my duty to do so and I do it willingly."

China's anger at Sarkozy has taken a harsher tone than the response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown after their meetings with the Dalai Lama.

Relations between France and China have been rocky since Sarkozy came to power last year.

There were Chinese boycotts of French products after pro-Tibet protests in April marred the Olympic torch relay in Paris and Sarkozy threatened to stay away from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

The French leader in the end attended the Olympics ceremony and sent his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and Kouchner to meet with the Dalai Lama when he visited France in August.

French officials say this recent time of troubles, coupled with the European parliament's decision to grant the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Chinese dissident Hu Jia, have caused an "overdose" of acrimony.

The prize will be awarded in Strasbourg on December 17, two weeks before France ends its stint as EU president.

Nadege Puljak/AFP/Expatica

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