STRASBOURG — French President Nicolas Sarkozy rejected Thursday Chinese pressure not to meet Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, saying it was not up to Beijing to set his agenda.
"There are things that China cannot say to European countries," he told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "France is a European country that must be respected just as much as China."
"It's not up to China to set my agenda and my meetings," he said, but did not confirm whether he would meet the Dalai Lama during the spiritual leader's August 12-23 visit to France.
On Tuesday, Chinese Ambassador Kong Quan warned of "serious consequences" to Sino-French relations if Sarkozy met the exiled Tibetan leader.
"If such a meeting took place, it would have serious consequences because it would be contrary to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs," the ambassador told reporters in Paris, without elaborating.
But Sarkozy said it was important to engage China in dialogue, and he defended his controversial decision to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing in August.
"It's not by humiliating China that we will help China make progress, but rather by frank and direct dialogue," he said, and he added: "You can't boycott a quarter of humankind."
He insisted that he had sought the opinion of all 27 member states before deciding to go to Beijing and said that none had objected.
"I contacted every member state to get their opinion and to find out if any were opposed," he said. "I received the agreement of every member country to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games."
"No one opposed my participation," he said, noting that at the time that he spoke 13 EU nations were to be represented at the ceremony in one form or another.
Tensions mounted between France and China when Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony following a Chinese crackdown on unrest in Tibet in March that sparked international outrage.
He has said that his decision on whether to attend the ceremony would hinge on progress in talks between China and the Dalai Lama.
A visibly emotional Greens leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, slammed Sarkozy's decision.
"It is shameful, it's petty to go to the opening of the Olympic Games," he said, adding that Sarkozy had missed a "golden opportunity" to say: "I will not take part in the Chinese Communist Party's masquerade."
Meanwhile, China said Thursday that it hoped to improve relations with France after Sarkozy's ceremony about-face had eased tensions.
"We hope that we can turn a new page in our relations," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters.
"China and France, as two major countries in the world, should handle bilateral relations from a long-term perspective, overcome difficulties and promote a long-term and healthy development of bilateral relations."
Just before the French leader spoke in Strasbourg, the EU deputies voted for a resolution calling on China to respect human rights, in the run up to the Games, but which did not contain any reference to a boycott.
In it, the assembly "urges the Chinese authorities to take this historic opportunity to demonstrate to the world that the granting of the Olympic Games to Beijing has provided a unique chance to improve their human rights record by displaying clemency to all political prisoners and human rights activists in jail."