Sarkozy Backpedals to Beijing

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Stephane de Sakutin / REUTERS

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

If backpedaling were an Olympic sport, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy would be strong contender for the gold. When the Beijing Olympiad's opening ceremony gets underway on Friday, Sarkozy will meekly take his place alongside President Bush and dozens of others of world leaders — this despite his earlier threat that he might boycott the event in protest against China's crackdown in Tibet last March. And when Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, visits France to inaugurate a Buddhist temple on August 22, President Sarkozy won't host him — the Elysee Palace announced Wednesday that he'll send his wife, Carla Bruni, to the event instead. Snubbing the Dalai Lama must be counted as a second retreat from the tough-talking French President's earlier rejection of calls by Beijing to cancel his plans to host the Tibetan.

In the wake of Chinese security crackdown in Tibet earlier this year, Sarkozy warned that he would attend the opening ceremony only if China improved its relations with Tibet. The extent of improvement in those ties is questionable, but Sarkozy last month informed still seething Chinese leaders he'd attend Friday's festivities. That decision, not coincidentally, came in the wake of virulent anti-French protests in China, based on perceived French support for Tibetan protests. The Dalai Lama, of course, has spoken against boycotts of the Beijing Olympics, but Sarkozy's decision to avoid a face-to-face meeting with the Tibetan leader was interpreted by pundits in France as an additional effort by Sarkozy to appease his Chinese hosts.

If commentators and voters in France who recalled Sarkozy's campaign promises to center his foreign policy on human rights concerns were disappointed by his Olympic compromises, they would have cringed at the sycophantic flattery that has accompanied it: On Wednesday, a Chinese news agency ran an interview with Sarkozy, quoting him as saying, "If organizing Olympic Games were a sport, I'm sure you'll agree with me that China would win the gold medal!"

Apparently alluding to tensions created by his previous positions on both the opening ceremonies and the Dalai Lama's visit, Sarkozy said his attendance on Friday should restore ties. "My presence in Beijing will confirm once again," Sarkozy said, "that the friendship between France and China is a fundamental axis of France's foreign policy." Exit human rights concerns stage right — and with them those pesky protestors who infuriated Chinese nationalists by turning the Paris leg of the Olympic torch run into a mockery.

"To a China that succeeds more and more each day," Sarkozy added for good measure, "I address a warm message of friendship — an historic, inalienable, unshakable friendship that ties the French people to the Chinese people."

That kind of burning love hasn't been expressed by Sarkozy often — the rare exception having come with his virtual endorsement of visiting Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama last month. It was Sarkozy's own swagger in the face of earlier Chinese complaints that made his retreat all the more unmistakable: Last month, for example, when China's ambassador to Paris warned that there could be grave "consequences" for France if Sarkozy went ahead with announced plans to host the Dalai Lama, the president mockingly shot back that "It's not up to China to fix my agenda". Canceling his plan to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader suggests that Beijing, in fact, has far more influence over Sarkozy's appointment book than he'd care to admit. The latest move has provoked some uncharacteristically lame rationalization from the Elysée. In defending his decision to attend the Opening Ceremonies, for example, Sarkozy noted France's current control of the European Union's rotating presidency meant he wasn't at liberty to boycott Friday's festivities in the name of France if other member nations wanted him there representing the E.U.

Meanwhile, the Elysée's statement Wednesday sought to shift the onus of the aborted meeting with the Dalai Lama to the Tibetan, stating Sarkozy "understands the reasons that lead the Dalai Lama not to seek a interview, given the present circumstances." In response, pro-Tibetan groups in France have since retorted the Dalai Lama has made his desire to meet with Sarkozy clear, and had been in contact with presidential advisors to that end. That led France's ruling conservatives to promise Thursday morning that Sarkozy will keep his date with Dalai Lama after all — albeit toward the end of the year, when the Games and all the politics surrounding them are history.