French president considers Olympic boycott


French President Nicolas Sarkozy said today that he cannot rule out the possibility he might boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics if China continues its crackdown in Tibet.

An official from France's state television company said the broadcaster would likely boycott the games if coverage was censored, and the European Union urged China to show restraint as it tries to quell continuing unrest in its Tibetan areas.

Asked whether he supported a boycott, Sarkozy said he could "not close the door to any possibility." A spokesman for the president said Sarkozy was referring to a possible snub of the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

"Our Chinese friends must understand the worldwide concern that there is about the question of Tibet, and I will adapt my response to the evolutions in the situation that will come, I hope, as rapidly as possible," the president said during a visit with a military regiment in southwest France.

Sarkozy also said he had told Chinese President Hu Jintao of his concern, asking for restraint, dialogue and the end of violence in Tibet.

Sarkozy also disclosed contacts between his office and that of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

"I have an envoy who spoke to the authorities who are closest to the Dalai Lama," Sarkozy said. "I want dialogue to begin, and I will gauge my response on the response that the Chinese authorities give."

A Paris-based media freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, last week appealed for an opening ceremony boycott by heads of state and government, as well as royalty &

an idea that has gained the support of many French.

Reporters Without Borders made headlines again Monday when three high-ranking members were arrested at the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony after unfurling a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. Jean-Francois Julliard, the group's research director, welcomed Sarkozy's comments.

"We feel that things are starting to get moving, that political leaders are starting to change their attitudes," Julliard said in a telephone interview Tuesday. He was one of the three arrested in Greece and charged with "insulting national symbols."

He said that to his knowledge, Sarkozy was the first world leader to go so far in the boycott discussion. Prince Charles has said he will skip the Olympics.

The White House said last week that President Bush still planned to attend the event. Presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush's position is that the Olympics "should be about the athletes and not necessarily about politics."

The sports director at France's main television company suggested Tuesday it could consider a boycott if Chinese government censors the footage.

"For the moment, we don't intend to boycott the games," Daniel Bilalian said on RTL Belgium radio. But, he added, if the games are "in any way censored or sanitized by the Chinese authorities ... that would obviously put our position in question."

"At that point, the president of France Televisions ... would without a doubt decide not to cover the Olympic Games," he said.

Violent protests in Tibet, the most serious challenge in almost two decades to China's rule in the region, are forcing human rights campaigners to re-examine their approach to the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games.

The government says at least 22 people have died in Lhasa, while Tibetan rights groups say nearly 140 Tibetans were killed, including 19 in Gansu province.

A protest in Sichuan province on Monday ended in a deadly clash between demonstrators and police, reportedly leaving a policeman and at least one monk dead.

China has banned foreign journalists from traveling to the protest areas, making it extremely difficult to verify any information.

The uprising is the broadest and most sustained against Chinese rule in almost two decades, and the communist leadership has accused Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his supporters of masterminding the dissent.

The European Union on Tuesday urged China to stop using force against the protesters and said the demonstrations should be peaceful.

The EU told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that it is deeply concerned about the unrest in Tibet and that it is spreading to other regions of China.

"We urge Chinese authorities to refrain from using force against those involved in unrest and call on demonstrators to desist from violence," said Slovenia's Ambassador Andrej Logar, who currently represents the 27-nation bloc at the U.N. body.

The Chinese government should lift restrictions on movement and information, he said.

"The EU stresses the importance it attaches to the right of freedom of expression and peaceful protest," Logar said, adding that the Chinese government should address Tibetans' human rights concerns.

Meanwhile, Australia's senior Olympic official urged political activists Tuesday not to target the Beijing Games.

"I think the Olympic Games are a cause and an agent for good, not a panacea for ills," said Kevan Gosper, vice chairman of the International Olympic Committee's Coordination Commission for the Beijing Games.

World cycling champion Arnaud Tournant also spoke out against an Olympic boycott despite his concerns about China's record on press freedoms and Tibet.

"It's not the best solution when you use sport for the political problems," said the 29-year-old Frenchman, who won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games and is heading into his final Olympics this year.

The demonstrations in Greece included a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood who briefly blocked the path of the torch relay.

What was supposed to have marked the symbolic, joyous countdown to the Beijing Games began with a statement against China's human rights policies and crackdown in Tibet &

foreshadowing the prospect of other protests and disruptions right up until the Aug. 8 start of the Olympics.

China pledged strict security measures to ensure protests won't mar its segment of the 85,000-mile, 136-day relay across five continents and 20 countries.

One potential flashpoint is the route through Tibet. The flame is due to be carried to the summit of Mount Everest in May and pass through Lhasa in June.

Australia Tibet Council executive officer Paul Bourke told the Australian Associated Press that his group planned demonstrations when the torch relay comes to Australia on April 24.

"Tibet is virtually under a state of undeclared martial law and we don't believe it's appropriate to be taking the torch through Tibet at that time," Bourke said, adding that protesters from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane would be on hand.


Associated Press Writers Eliane Engeler in Geneva, John Pye in Brisbane, Australia, and Rob Harris in Manchester, England, contributed to this report.

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