Sarkozy defends presence at Olympics

Aug. 08, 2008, 9:32 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his decision to attend Friday's opening of the Beijing Games as a step toward coaxing greater reforms from China and brushed off criticism for avoiding a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

"We don't boycott a quarter of humanity," Sarkozy said as he met with French athletes ahead of the evening's opening ceremony. "The Olympics are the opportunity to accompany China on a path toward openness, tolerance, progress and the respect of our values."

Initially, Sarkozy had threatened to boycott the opening of the Aug. 8-24 games over China's crackdown in Tibet earlier this year. He later changed his mind, prompting criticism from human rights groups.

Sarkozy also met on Friday with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and Sarkozy's office said he handed them lists of political prisoners in China that European officials would like to see freed.

The men did not discuss the lists, and they also did not discuss Tibet, although Sarkozy's office said the question of human rights was raised.

Sarkozy's critics and human rights groups have accused him of bowing to Chinese pressure and wanting to secure major Chinese contracts for French companies.

The French president told France 2 television in an interview, "The Olympics are universal - if we can only choose organizing countries that share exactly the same values as ours, then we would have a group as small as a postage stamp."

Criticism of Sarkozy has increased since his office announced this week that he would not meet the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader travels to France. The Dalai Lama begins an 11-day stay in France on Tuesday.

The French president said the Dalai Lama himself told him "that he didn't want to organize a meeting during the Olympic Games."

"He is a wise man, who knows very well that, when things are tense, you can't improve the situation in Tibet," Sarkozy told France 2. He added that he would have the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama before the end of the year.

At a lunch of leaders in Beijing, Sarkozy was seated at the Chinese president's table, and invited Hu to visit France. Sarkozy was accompanied by the youngest of his sons, 11-year-old Louis, for his brief visit to Beijing, his office said.