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Europe's ardor for Olympic boycott cools

Despite earlier tensions over Tibet, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attend the opening ceremonies in August.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2008

More Heated Times: Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrated in Paris in April as the Olympic torch passed through.

Françcois Durand/Getty Images

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PARIS

This August as world attention turns to the Olympics in Beijing, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader and target of Chinese ire, travels to France.But French President Nicolas Sarkozy now says he will travel to China for the Games – ending speculation that the high-profile European leader might stay home to protest China's handling of Tibet after monks rioted in Lhasa in March.

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This spring, Europe briefly looked set to champion the Tibetan cause. Activists in London and Paris nearly doused the Olympic torch as it came through, setting off events that helped dim the Games' luster. Mr. Sarkozy tied his Olympic attendance to talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.

But if European officials had any ardor to make Tibet an Olympic issue, it has largely cooled.

Faced with an intense and studied set of pressures by Beijing, with worry over the consequence of China losing face in its première world event, in which it has invested billions, and with a tragic earthquake in Sichuan overshadowing Tibet, talk of protest has been replaced by a sober and pragmatic silence in Europe.

Sarkozy said at the G-8 meeting in Japan that he will not address the issue of Tibet until October, when talks between China and the Dalai Lama are to resume.

President Bush and Japanese head of state Yasuo Fukuda have announced they will attend opening ceremonies on Aug. 8, and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy looks ready to as well. Angela Merkel of Germany and Gordon Brown of Britain have long said they will not attend, though not as a boycott.

This week, as rumors flew around Paris that Sarkozy would privately meet the Dalai Lama, China's ambassador issued a warning. Such a meeting would have "serious consequences," said Ambassador Kong Quan. "It will interfere with our internal affairs. I don't want to contemplate this possibility."

"Sympathy for Tibet is very strong in Europe, where there's a great awareness of the Tibetan issues," says Nancy Li, a Paris-based human rights activist on China. "But China isn't ready for symbolic protests the West might feel are natural, and I think the international community is forced to give the Chinese face."