France mulls partial Olympic boycott

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This morning's Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Greece was disrupted by protesters from the Paris-based media rights groups Reporters Without Borders. The bad publicity was exactly the kind of thing that Beijing was hoping (unrealistically) to avoid in the run-up to this summer's games, but also highlights a growing debate in France over whether the country should take action to voice its disapproval of China's human rights record.

RSF (the organization's French acronym) has proposed that France boycott the Games' opening ceremony. A poll published in today's Libération newspaper and sponsored by RSF found that 53 percent of respondents liked the idea of President Nicolas Sarkozy skipping the event. A separate poll in the sports magazine L'Equipe had nearly identical results. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he found the idea "interesting" last Tuesday but then quickly backtracked several hours later:

There are a lot of good ideas that can't be put into practice [...] When you're dealing in international relations with countries as important as China, obviously when you make economic decisions it's sometimes at the expense of human rights," he added. "That's elementary realism."

Sounds like somebody got a talking to. This isn't the first time that Kouchner's idealism has taken a back seat to his boss's more pragmatic priorities, and it raises some questions over whether the left-wing, former head of Doctors Without Borders is only in Sarkozy's government as liberal-internationalist window dressing. Sarkozy, for his part, has offered to make France a facilitator for negotiations between China and the Dalai Lama. It's a start, but as the protests inevitably grow throughout this spring, it's going to get harder to stick to the middle ground.

Update: Speaking on Tuesday, Sarkozy would not rule out the possibility of boycotting the ceremony, saying, "All options are open and I appeal to the Chinese leaders' sense of responsibility." Perhaps he's keeping an eye on the polls.


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