French PM under fire for response to China arrests

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The Independent Online
EDOUARD BALLADUR flew back to France from China yesterday after an official visit during which the Chinese authorities angered his delegation by detaining human rights activists.

The four-day visit had been seen as an attempt by France to increase its share of the Chinese market and as an effort by the Gaullist Prime Minister, currently rated the most likely successor to Francois Mitterrand in next year's presidential elections, to demonstrate his prowess in foreign affairs.

However, politicians on both left and right were critical. After first describing the detentions of two Shanghai dissidents while he was visiting the city as 'unacceptable', Mr Balladur said on Saturday that the Chinese had told him that 'it is not a matter of arrests but of checks followed by releases'.

Jean-Francois Deniau, a former minister and a leading member of the Union for French Democracy (UDF) which makes up the ruling conservative coalition with Mr Balladur's Gaullist RPR party, said yesterday: 'Obviously, the Chinese were indulging in provocation and were trying to make us lose face.' He said Mr Balladur should have asked for assurances that the dissidents be freed after his departure.

Bernard Kouchner, the gung-ho minister for humanitarian action in the last Socialist government, said the French party should have left China once it heard of the detentions 'as did Jacques Chaban- Delmas during a shrill trip to Moscow'. Mr Chaban-Delmas, a former Gaullist prime minister, abruptly cut short a visit to the Soviet Union in 1980 when he heard during his stay that Andrei Sakharov had been exiled to the city of Gorky.

Before Mr Balladur arrived in Peking, the Chinese detained Wei Jingsheng, a leader of the democracy movement. As Mr Balladur arrived, it emerged that Xu Wenli, another dissident whose liberation from prison last year helped China regain US trade privileges, had also been picked up. Mr Balladur had explained that in human rights matters, 'discretion is often more effective than publicity', a remark which Mr Kouchner dismissed as 'a retreat'.

The detentions in Shanghai of Bao Ge, who was released yesterday, and Wang Fuchen, prompted Mr Balladur to cancel his appearance at a banquet and finally provoked public French anger. Alain Juppe, the Gaullist Foreign Minister, said: 'It is beginning to get a bit much' and added, 'We have asked for explanations and we expect a reply.'

Although Mr Balladur still tops most opinion polls, his standing has fallen from his earlier unprecedented highs, particularly after he was forced to withdraw a plan to reduce the minimum wage for the young in the face of student protests.