Hu's Visit To France Marks Turnaround In Relations

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China's President Hu Jintao visited Paris for three days and was feted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. This marks a turnaround for relations between the two nations. Two years ago, Sarkozy threatened to boycott the Beijing Olympics over human rights concerns.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the economy is why French President Nicolas Sarkozy rolled out the red carpet this weekend for the president of China. The tone was dramatically different from the last visit, when French-Chinese relations were at an all-time low.

Eleanor Beardsley explains why.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Two years ago, President Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, over China's treatment of Tibet. In return, millions of Chinese boycotted French companies in China. But this weekend, there was no talk of Tibet, and Chinese Premiere Hu Jintao was treated like royalty.

(Soundbite of music)

BEARDSLEY: Going beyond the demands of protocol, Sarkozy and French first lady Carla Bruni welcomed the Chinese first couple at Orly Airport. Their motorcade was then escorted down the Champs Elysees by France's elite Republican Guard, on horseback.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of horse hooves clomping)

BEARDSLEY: Franco-Chinese relations are more about realpolitik today. Sarkozy needs Chinese support as France takes up leadership of the G20 talks next year, and China needs an ally against American pressure for it to devalue its currency. Sarkozy foreshadowed the shift in relations even before Hu's arrival, saying China should be seen as an opportunity, not a risk.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (French): (Through translator) And when you invite someone to your country, you should be a gracious host. It's not by reproaching people that you advance things. Trying to understand each other is the best way to find a compromise advantageous to both partners.

(Soundbite of cameras clicking)

BEARDSLEY: The advantages to French business were obvious as Sarkozy and Hu signed a raft of contracts worth more than $30 billion. All the big, French multinationals got a piece of the pie as the media looked on. But human rights groups were deeply critical.

(Soundbite of yelling protesters)

BEARDSLEY: Members of group Reporters Without Borders held two street demonstrations that were quickly shut down by police. Jean Francois Julliard, head of Reporters without Borders, believes France can sign business contracts with China while pressing it on human rights.

Mr. JEAN FRANCOIS JULLIARD (Secretary General, Reporters Without Borders): Other governments do both. For instance, in Germany or in U.K., the authorities support their private companies and make very big, commercial contracts with China. And at the same time, they have a very firm statement about political situation on human rights situation in China.

BEARDSLEY: The real reason Sarkozy is now courting China has nothing to do with business contracts, says Philippe Dessertine, head of Paris' High Finance Institute. It's all about Sarkozy's own re-election bid, in 2012.

Professor PHILIPPE DESSERTINE (Director, Paris Institute of High Finance): (Through translator) For Sarkozy, who is extremely unpopular in France right now, hosting a successful G20 is crucial to getting him re-elected. So the stakes are enormous for him. That's why he's ready to do anything to make China France's ally for the next year.

BEARDSLEY: Dessertine says Sarkozy has big ambitions for the G20, but his biggest fear is that the talks will fall apart over a currency dispute between China and the U.S. Wooing the Chinese president, says Dessertine, is all about keeping China at the G20 table and on France's side, so that Sarkozy can boost his own political ratings ahead of the next presidential poll.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley, in Paris.

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