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Sarkozy to attend Olympics opener

The French president Nicolas Sarkozy will attend the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony next month.

The French president Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at a press conference in Toyako, Japan.
The French president Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at a press conference in Toyako, Japan.

RUSUTSU, Japan // The French president Nicolas Sarkozy will attend the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony next month, his office said today. The announcement ends his threat to boycott the event in an apparent attempt to soothe Chinese irritation over French support of Tibet. Mr Sarkozy was the first world leader to raise the possibility of skipping the festivities to protest China's violent clampdown in Tibet after riots and protests there in March. A snub would have been a slap in the face to China's communist leadership, eager to use the Games to show off the country's power and clout.

After keeping the threat alive for months, Mr Sarkozy reassured Chinese president Hu Jintao that he would attend the August 8 ceremony, his office said. The two men spoke on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit of industrialized powers in Japan. Since the March unrest, international pressure has built on both China and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, for an easing of tensions over the Himalayan region, which China has governed since the 1950s when communist troops marched in.

The talks are important to China's hopes of hosting a flawless Olympics. Mr Sarkozy, in particular, has pressed for dialogue between the two sides, saying that he could attend the event if the discussions made more progress. He has also left open the possibility that he could meet with the Dalai Lama when he visits France in August, though China disapproved of the contacts. But there was no mention of Tibet, human rights or the spiritual leader in the brief statement from Mr Sarkozy's office. "The chief of state stressed the Olympic values of peace, friendship and brotherhood, and wished great success to the Beijing Olympic Games," the statement said. The statement added that France wants to "deepen its strategic partnership with China," a major client for European plane maker Airbus, as well as French companies from nuclear giant Areva to transport and engineering company Alstom.

Mr Sarkozy's office refused to discuss the sensitive issue, saying it had to be "discreet." An Elysee Palace official travelling with Mr Sarkozy said Chinese and French officials had mutually agreed not to communicate on that question. The announcement came as news outlets reported that China's ambassador to Paris warned of "serious consequences" if Mr Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama. Le Figaro newspaper, which printed the ambassador's comments, reported that business contracts were at stake, including the sale of more than 100 Airbus planes.

Mr Sarkozy and other world leaders have been under intense pressure from human rights groups to skip the event, which will include a fireworks event, dance displays and historical drama performances. The US President George W Bush has also decided to attend the Olympics opener. He said this week at the summit in Japan that it would be an "affront to the Chinese people" if he stayed away. The British prime minister Gordon Brown has said he will skip the opener but attend the closer. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not plan to attend, but Mr Sarkozy's office said she supported his decision, saying it was important to have a European Union representative there.

* AP