PARIS (AFP) — Paris city council voted on Monday to award honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama, in a move sure to add to tensions with China as fresh anti-French rallies erupted in cities across the country.
Paris lawmakers also voted to bestow the same honor to Hu Jia, a prominent human rights activist who was jailed in China earlier this month on charges of attempted subversion.
Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who tabled the proposal for the Dalai Lama's citizenship earlier Monday, said the French capital wished to "pay tribute to a champion of peace, a tireless advocate of dialogue between peoples."
"Paris also wants to show its support for the people of Tibet who are defending their most basic right to dignity, freedom and simply life," the Socialist mayor said.
The honours conferred upon the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and Chinese dissident comes amid a chill in relations between France and China following the chaotic Olympic torch relay in Paris two weeks ago that was disrupted by human rights protesters.
A string of protests in several Chinese cities at the weekend targeted the French retailer Carrefour as well as the US all-news broadcaster CNN. Fresh anti-French protests erupted in nine cities on Monday.
Carrefour's 122 supermarkets have been subject to boycott calls in China after President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to stay away from the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on August 8 over China's policy in Tibet.
Protests against Chinese rule rocked the Himalayan region last month, with exiled Tibetan leaders saying more than 150 people had died in a government crackdown.
China says Tibetan "rioters" killed 18 civilians and two police officers.
The right-wing French government has not backed the Parisian mayor's move, with a spokesman for Sarkozy's UMP party suggesting the popular left-winger was hoping to score a public relations coup.
A number of Paris lawmakers including UMP ones, as well as Socialist deputy mayor Chistophe Girard, also refrained from voting on the Dalai Lama citizenship measure.
But the government has repeatedly called for dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama to settle the conflict over Tibet.
Sarkozy reiterated that stance during talks Friday with Zhao Jinjun, special representative of Chinese President Hu Jintao and a former Chinese ambassador to France.
To defuse Chinese anger, Sarkozy sent a letter to wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete Jin Jing, who was forced to shield the torch from pro-Tibet protesters during the Paris leg of the relay on April 7.
"I was shocked to see what happened during the torch relay," Sarkozy said in the letter conveyed by French Senate president Christian Poncelet in Shanghai on Monday.
"It is understandable that the Chinese people feel hurt. I hereby strongly condemn what they did."
Poncelet was also to hand over a letter from Sarkozy to Hu, underscoring the importance that France accords to its ties with Beijing, a source said Monday.
Two other senior envoys are heading to Beijing this week to deliver messages from the French president, whose visit to China in November led to billions of dollars in trade deals including a mega-project to build two nuclear reactors.
Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is to hold talks with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on Thursday, and the president's top diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte, arrives at the weekend for meetings.
The Dalai Lama is to visit France in August when China hosts the Olympic Games.
The Olympic torch relay through Paris descended into chaos after protesters and pro-Tibet demonstrators took to the streets to condemn Beijing's human rights record. Similar protests have marred the torch run in San Francisco and in cities throughout Asia.
The Tibetan leader has also been invited to address the pan-European rights body, the Council of Europe, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, in June.
China sent troops into Tibet in 1950 and officially "liberated" it the following year.
The Dalai Lama fled his homeland in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He says he wants autonomy for Tibet rather than independence.
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