France to welcome Dalai Lama under shadow of China row

The Dalai Lama kicks off Tuesday an 11-day visit to France that threatened to spark a crisis between Paris and Beijing, until President Nicolas Sarkozy quashed speculation he would meet the Tibetan spiritual leader, the AFP reported.

Planned more than two years ago, the Nobel peace laureate's French visit turned suddenly political after a Chinese crackdown on unrest in Tibet in March that sparked international outrage in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

Sarkozy's initial threat to boycott the Olympic opening ceremony, together with rowdy pro-Tibet protests during the passage of the Olympic flame through Paris, fuelled a months-long diplomatic spat with Beijing.

And a decision by the opposition-held Paris city hall to name the 73-year-old spiritual guide an honorary citizen further fanned tensions.

Though Sarkozy decided last month to attend Friday's opening, noting progress in talks between China and the Dalai Lama, he failed to prevent a wave of protests targeting French commercial interests in China.

Speculation over a meeting with the Buddhist leader in France since then continued to pour oil on the fire, with the Chinese ambassador in Paris warning of "serious consequences" for bilateral relations.

The French leader's office finally announced Wednesday that no meeting would take place, saying it was the Dalai Lama's decision.

The Dalai Lama's representative in France Wangpo Bashi told AFP that the "timing is not right", saying a meeting during the Olympics risked setting back talks between Tibetan and Chinese parties.

Instead, Sarkozy's wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy -- who under French law has no official function -- will attend the inauguration by Dalai Lama of a temple in southern France on August 22.

On Wednesday, the Buddhist leader is scheduled to meet some 250 senators and deputies from the French parliamentary group on Tibet, before holding talks with leaders of the French Tibetan community.

The rest of his August 12-23 stay will be devoted to religious visits, in the Paris region and elsewhere, and a six-day teaching cycle in the western city of Nantes.

"It is first and foremost a spiritual, religious visit," said Bashi, who heads the Tibet Bureau in Paris. "That is how it was always intended."

France is home to an estimated 770,000 Buddhists, according to the French Buddhist union, three quarter of them of Asian origin.

The Dalai Lama has visited France a dozen times since 1982, meeting with city or government officials and once with the president, the late Francois Mitterrand, in 1993.

France's left-wing Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and junior minister for human rights Rama Yade have both said they would be willing to meet him, but no such plans have been announced.

Sarkozy has been accused at home of flip-flopping on the issue of the Olympics and undermining France's credibility in China.

Critics note that other Western leaders, including of the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and Britain have met the Dalai Lama in the past two years without jeopardising their relations with Beijing.

Speaking from the Olympics opening ceremony, Sarkozy insisted Friday the meeting "has merely been postponed".

The Dalai Lama's representative confirmed that a meeting would take place before the end of the year.

China sent troops into Tibet in 1950 and officially "liberated" it the following year. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking independence for Tibet and of fomenting unrest in the territory to sabotage the Olympic Games.

The spiritual leader insists he wants autonomy and religious freedom rather than independence for Tibet, and has sent Beijing his "prayers and best wishes" for the success of the Olympics.

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