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Sarkozy's "Astonishing" Olympic Announcement

Jul 18, 2008
So it's official. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will be attending the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing,

After a "productive" 30-minute meeting with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, Sarkozy's office officially released the news on Wednesday that it had already leaked to the French media last Friday.

To many in France, the news will have come as much of a surprise as suddenly discovering that the Pope is Catholic.

Basically it was always on the cards right back in March when Sarkozy first started digging himself into something of a diplomatic hole by saying he was shocked by China's security clampdown in Tibet and urging Beijing to re-open discussions with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

That of course opened a Pandora's box of speculation and thus began for the next month a huge domestic debate in the media as to "whether he would/should" or "whether he wouldn't/shouldn't" attend the opening ceremony.

Sarkozy didn't really help matters that much by staying silent and letting the rumours rumble along.

He remained tight-lipped in early April when his junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, said in a newspaper interview that Sarkozy had set three indispensable "conditions" for Chinese authorities to meet before he would confirm his attendance.

Yade later backtracked, maintaining she had been misquoted. That led to (even more) speculation from some quarters that Sarkozy was playing a clever game of testing the political waters without actually getting his feet wet himself.

And then of course a few days later there was the disrupted passage of the Olympic flame through the streets of Paris, when demonstrators forced its journey to be cut short - right there in the glare of the world's media. Not a peep was heard from Sarkozy's office at the Elysée palace.

It wasn't until forced by circumstances that later the same week Sarkozy finally broke his silence and officially linked his presence at the opening ceremony with the resumption of talks between Chinese authorities and the representatives of the Dalai Lama.

He had moved on from March's "all options are open" approach to something resembling more of an ultimatum.

"France will do everything to encourage such talks," he said. " There are still several months to go (before the opening of the games) and there's no time to lose.'

"It'll be in light of the resumption of such a dialogue that I'll decide what will be the conditions for our participation."

That re-opening of a dialogue has been promised, so Sarkozy is - as far as he's concerned - off the hook.

Part of the problem in all of Sarkozy's manoeuvrings of course has been not so much what's at stake politically or diplomatically, but most importantly economically.

And that has brought with it into question the far wider issue of what constitutes French foreign policy and whether it's based on principles or pragmatism.

Sarkozy came to office assuring the former, but so far has shown himself only credible in delivering on the latter.

His election promise was to make respect for human rights the focal point of this country's foreign policy. But instead there has been a string of billion Euro deals done with trading partners no matter how questionable their human rights records might be; countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and of course the biggest one of all......China.

On a visit there last November Sarkozy clinched contracts worth €20 billion to French industry and he doesn't want to do anything to endanger those deals.

It also leaves his foreign minister - yes there is one in the shape of the much respected humanitarian and hugely popular Bernard Kouchner (who incidentally has found himself rather at odds with his track record as a man who has always been a firm supporter of Tibetan rights and counts himself as a friend of the Dalai Lama) in rather a weak and unenviable position.

French foreign policy has long been established as the domain of the president. And (for once) Sarkozy has stuck with tradition, proving himself to be the country's greatest salesman along the way.

Of course the story is far from being finished. There's still the thorny issue over whether Sarkozy will meet the Dalai Lama who is due to visit France between August 12 and 23.

What might have been all right for US president, George W. Bush - who will be at the opening ceremony, or for Germany's Angela Merkel - who won't, might just prove unacceptable as far as China is concerned, should Sarkozy decide to follow both leaders' example and greet the Dalai Lama officially.

There have already been less than veiled warnings of "serious consequences" from the Chinese embassy in Paris, which will doubtless require some interesting diplomatic tip-toeing à la française over the next couple of weeks to get around that particular conundrum.

For the moment though, Sarkozy is all set to take his place in Beijing among the invited dignitaries on August 8 wearing both his French presidential hat and that as the representative of the 27- nation European Union, of which France currently holds the six-month rotating presidency.

Whoever said that sport and politics don't mix? They seem a perfect combination almost made for each other.
About the Author
Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specialising in politics, sport and travel. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at http://www.persiflagefrance.com
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