How satisfying it must be to sit back and watch members of government apparently trip over their tongues. It’s all the better when you’re trying to stay out of the limelight a little in an effort to revamp your image and improve your popularity ratings.
That might be the cynic’s interpretation of what has been happening here in France over the weekend, and what the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been doing. But it might not be too far off the mark.
First there was the interview the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, gave the French national daily, Le Monde, on Saturday. In it, she’s quoted as saying that Sarkozy had set out three conditions which the Chinese authorities had to meet for him to attend the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing.
They had to open talks with the Dalai Lama, free political prisoners, and put an end to the violence against Tibetans and launch an investigation into recent clashes there. These conditions were “indispensable” she told the newspaper.
Then Yade backtracked on what she is reported to have said, claiming she was misquoted and insisting the word “conditions” was never used.
But the paper is sticking to its story and maintains that it accurately reported what was said. So it’s the word of the junior minister against that of one of the most respected newspapers internationally. That could be a tough call especially as neither politicians nor journalists are blessed with the best reputation in the world.
Although it’s hard to imagine that Yade spoke (or didn’t) without the full knowledge of her boss, let’s not forget that she has been in trouble before. When she criticised Libya’s human rights record during a visit to France last year by that country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, she was hauled in to answer to Sarkozy, but held on to her job.
During his short term in office, Sarkozy has been criticised for putting economic concerns and billion euro contracts ahead of human rights, both with China and Libya. In “allowing” Yade to speak out and then do an apparent volte face, Sarkozy manages to give the impression that he is indeed concerned with humans rights without actually having to make a statement himself. In a sense Yade plays the role of a spokesperson, saying and retracting without damaging Sarkozy’s image.
There has been no comment from the president’s official spokesman at the Elysée palace regarding Yade’s interview – a fact that for many speaks volumes.
But Yade’s immediate boss – the foreign minister and internationally respected humanitarian, Bernard Kouchner, was quick to react. He insisted that France would impose no conditions on China about whether Sarkozy would attend the opening ceremony, as that would be counterproductive to keeping a dialogue going over human rights.
“The president will decide according to how the situation (in Tibet) turns out,” Kouchner told French television. “ How that evolves must be followed but all possibilities remain open.”
The chances are this story will still be making the headlines on Monday when the Olympic flame is due to pass through Paris. It’ll be interesting to see whether Yade joins protesters in the streets of the French capital, or whether she feels she has said more than enough for the moment.
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