France conveys sympathy to Chinese torchbearer

BEIJING Mon Apr 21, 2008 7:30am EDT

Jin Jing, a 27 year-old amputee and Paralympic fencer, displays a torch for Beijing Olympic Games during an interview with Reuters in Beijing April 11, 2008. REUTERS/Sally Huang

Jin Jing, a 27 year-old amputee and Paralympic fencer, displays a torch for Beijing Olympic Games during an interview with Reuters in Beijing April 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Sally Huang

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BEIJING (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy conveyed a message of sympathy on Monday to Jin Jing, a wheelchair-bound Chinese torch bearer who shielded the flame from protesters on the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay.

Jin, a 27-year-old Paralympic fencer, was hailed as a hero at home after clinging to the torch in the face of protesters denouncing Chinese policy in the contested region of Tibet, who threw themselves at her during the relay.

In a letter to Jin, whose brush with protesters made her a symbol of Chinese defiance, Sarkozy invited her to visit his country again as his "personal guest", an official at his office said.

Christian Poncelet, the President of the French Senate, visited Jin in Shanghai and gave her the note in the latest bid by Paris to defuse tensions with Beijing following calls in China for a boycott of French goods.

"I would like to express to you my deep emotion for the way you were shoved in Paris on April 7," Sarkozy said in the letter as quoted by the official from his office.

"You showed an outstanding courage," he added.

But despite her initial popularity at home, Jin has since been denounced as a traitor on Chinese blogs after saying she did not support a movement to boycott French goods that has taken off since the Paris protests.

"Jin Jing, I'm disappointed by your attitude! ... How could you be so ignorant!" read one blog posting.

Over the weekend, Chinese took to the streets in several cities to demand a boycott of French goods and targeted the French supermarket chain Carrefour, part of an upsurge in nationalist sentiment in response to anti-China demonstrations that have followed the torch relay around the world.

Sarkozy's letter said he understood that the attack on the torch had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and said such behavior was "intolerable", Xinhua news agency said.

"I want to assure you that the incidents that were brought about by a few people on this sad day don't reflect the feelings of my fellow countrymen for the Chinese people," the letter said, according to Xinhua.

Anti-French sentiment has been running so high in China that on Saturday police sealed off the area around the French embassy in Beijing and riot police assembled in nearby streets in preparation for protesters, who in the end numbered a handful.

In the southern city of Kunming, a crowd pelted a man with empty water bottles after he said that boycotting Carrefour was irrational, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported.

Jin herself said in an interview with Reuters that there was no need to stop buying French goods and that "most French people are very friendly", comments that incurred the wrath of some who had initially hailed her as a hero.

Despite the vitriol of some, others have taken a more measured attitude.

"She's a young girl," read one blog posting, referring to Jin. "However, people should not curse others. Let's go our own way to boycott and let those who don't want to boycott go their way."

More French officials will seek to calm Chinese nerves soon.

Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is due to meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the coming days, and Sarkozy's diplomatic adviser Jean-David Levitte will visit China at the end of the week.

(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry in Paris)

("Countdown to Beijing Olympics" blog at blogs.reuters.com/china )

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