The French First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, will meet the Dalai Lama in France this week – adopting for the first time her self-proclaimed role as a kind of queen of human rights.
Officially, Mme Bruni-Sarkozy will meet the Buddhist spiritual leader as a man of faith, not as as a symbol of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. In truth, her role will be more ambiguous and more political, deflecting criticism from her husband, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who announced last week that he would not "provoke" the Chinese government by meeting the Dalai Lama while the Olympic Games were in progress in Beijing.
Although French first ladies are frequently deployed to greet visiting cultural or spiritual dignitaries, the Bruni-Dalai meeting has taken on unusual international, and domestic, political significance. Left-wing opposition leaders in France have accused President Sarkozy of "muddling genres" by using his wife as a political shield in this way, soon after attending the Olympics opening ceremony. The first secretary of the Socialist Party, François Hollande, said: "Nicolas Sarkozy has already won the gold medal for hypocrisy." Elysée officials said that the decision was made at the suggestion of the Dalai Lama himself, who advised Paris that it was "better not to annoy the Chinese during the Olympics".
The French media have, almost universally, interpreted the deployment of the First Lady to greet the Tibetan leader as a clumsy attempt to combine realpolitik and principle. The centre-left newspaper Libération said: "To human rights activists [the President] is saying 'Carla'. To the Chinese, he is saying: "here I come'."
The meeting may, however, also point to an expanding role for Mme Bruni-Sarkozy on human rights issues. Questions are being asked in France about her influence behind the scenes in a controversy over the proposed extradition to Italy of a convicted Italian leftist terrorist, Marina Petrella, who has lived in France for 15 years.
Mme Bruni-Sarkozy has said that she would like to use her role as First Lady to advance humanitarian causes. Since her marriage, she has, in fact, been relatively inactive as First Lady. In recent weeks, however, there have been signs that Mme Bruni-Sarkozy, who claimed to be a "gut left-winger", may be beginning to influence her radical-conservative husband on human rights questions.Reuse content