Sarkozy heads to Olympic ceremony, awards Beijing 'gold medal'

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday left for Beijing for the opening of the Olympics, after awarding China a "gold medal" for hosting the Games in a bid to mend ties frayed by his initial boycott threat, the AFP reported.

Though welcomed by Beijing, Sarkozy's visit has drawn fierce attacks from rights groups, with media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accusing him of "surrendering" to the Chinese authorities.

Paris authorities issued a last-minute ban on a planned RSF rally outside the Chinese embassy Friday, to prevent a repeat of the "violent disturbances" that marked the passage of the Olympic flame through Paris.

But media watchdog Reporters Without Borders appealed the ruling, with a court decision due at 10:30 am (0830 GMT) Friday, but urged its supporters to gather in any case on the Champs Elysees Avenue, just outside the security perimeter.

A separate rally called by human rights groups at the Trocadero plaza, across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower, will also go ahead as planned Friday at 1:00 pm (1100 GMT).

Human rights activists have criticised Sarkozy's final decision to attend the Olympic ceremony, which he justified by noting progress in talks between China and the Dalai Lama.

Sarkozy had threatened to shun the Olympic event following a Chinese crackdown on unrest in Tibet in March, but finally decided last month to attend after noting progress in talks between China and the Dalai Lama.

The French leader's linking of the Olympics to the situation in Tibet provoked a months-long diplomatic spat with Beijing, and helped fuel a wave of protests targeting French commercial interests in China.

Speaking to China's Xinhua news agency Wednesday, Sarkozy made no reference to human rights or Tibet, paying tribute instead to his country's "historic, unfailing and immovable friendship" with Beijing.

"My presence in Beijing will confirm it once more: the friendship between France and China is a fundamental axis of France's foreign policy," Sarkozy said, adding that China deserved a "gold medal" for its Olympic preparations.

In a further effort to rebuild bridges, Sarkozy's office announced he would not meet the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader visits France from August 11 to 23, a trip scheduled before the incidents in Tibet.

The prospect of a meeting had continued to feed tensions with Beijing, whose ambassador in Paris warned of "serious consequences" for bilateral relations.

Sarkozy, who will represent the European Union at the Olympics ceremony as holder of the six-month presidency of the bloc, is expected in Beijing at 11:30 am (0330 GMT) Friday for a flying visit of less than 12 hours.

RSF took out full-page ads in several French newspapers Thursday, carrying the photographs of jailed dissidents and asking Sarkozy to honour a "promise" to demand their release from China.

Former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, one of the delegation of politicians, businessmen and athletes accompanying Sarkozy, insisted he would not shirk the rights issue.

He said Sarkozy was "going in the name of the French republic and its values" and that "he will talk about dissidents, as we have always done" when he meets Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

"We are asking for progress on human rights, and that is something to be done looking each other straight in the eye, face to face... You don't talk to the Chinese via newspaper articles."

"One cannot boycott a quarter of humanity," he added in defence of the president's attendance.

Sarkozy's boycott threat, together with the Olympic torch fiasco in Paris, sparked a wave of anti-French rallies in China. Pickets targeted the retail giant Carrefour and travel agents scrapped France from their list of destinations.

Carrefour's chief executive Jose Luis Duran is also part of the delegation accompanying Sarkozy, underscoring the French business community's eagerness to draw a line under the Olympic spat.

But France's left-wing opposition has accused Sarkozy of flip-flopping in his dealings with Beijing, sapping France's international credibility.

Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are staying away from the Olympic ceremony, although neither drew an explicit link with the situation in Tibet -- thus avoiding China's ire.

Socialist deputy Pierre Moscovici suggested the shortness of his trip was "perhaps a sign of embarrassment."

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