Sarkozy seeks to bury the hatchet in China

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy begins a visit to China on Wednesday aimed at reinvigorating ties tested two years ago over Tibet and at winning support from Beijing on new Iranian sanctions.

The French president, making his second state visit to China, will meet the country's top leaders including his opposite number Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing before heading to Shanghai for the start of the World Expo.

Sarkozy -- who will be accompanied by his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and a delegation of top ministers -- was to begin his visit in the ancient capital of Xi'an, home to the famed terracotta warriors.

He was to go on to Beijing, kicking off the official part of his trip by meeting Hu and addressing the media later in the day.

"China attaches great importance" to Sarkozy's visit, said a source in Beijing. A source in Paris added that "2010 will be an exceptional year for Franco-Chinese ties," with "a return to unclouded relations".

Paris hopes to win China's support for fresh UN sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear programme, but first has to fully win over Beijing two years after a heated row over Tibet.

In March 2008, just four months after Sarkozy's first visit to China, ties soured when the French leader expressed shock at the security crackdown in the Chinese-ruled region after protests led to deadly violence.

A month later, the Chinese leadership was incensed when pro-Tibetan demonstrators booed and jostled the Olympic flame as it was carried through Paris on its way to the Beijing Games.

Tensions peaked when Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, in December 2008, before starting to ease when the French leader met Hu at the G20 summit on the financial crisis last year.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon, during a visit to China in December, said any "misunderstandings" between Paris and Beijing were a thing of the past.

No major deals are expected to be signed during the visit, French officials say, but nuclear power, aeronautic and environmental projects will be discussed.

© 2010 AFP

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