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By Harold Hyman

PARIS, 5 JUNE 2009 - The student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 felt that two nations in the world were beacons for their cause: the United States and France. That was a time when, arguably, the the People's Republic of China was not yet a daunting behemoth, and when Chinese civil society was still adolescent and the parental authority still benign. Confucius, as it were, had not been resurrected yet, and youthful political dreaming was possible while the Communist party was in flux.

For so many students at Tienanmen Square, France was an imaginary model of human rights and democracy almost as much as the United States.

The protestors had indeed constructed a goddess of democracy in the image of the Statue of Liberty, the famous statue which the French Republic commissioned the sculptor Bartholdi to build as a gift for the Centenary of the United States. This Franco-American symbolism may have been marginal to the protestors; not so the reputation of France as "the nation of Laws" (Fa Guo meaning "F" country in Mandarin: in other words, the first initial of the country, and also the other meaning of the character for F: law). This coincidence of meaning is telling: for so many students at Tienanmen Square, France was an imaginary model of human rights and democracy almost as much as the United States. Laws, after all, are products of democracy and freedom

Feeling for the Dissidents: The Epitome of Leftist Cool

In the aftermath of the Tienanmen repression, the students not yet arrested, or initially released, secretly sought contact with foreign consulates as a means of obtaining political refugee status. Of course, the consulates could only materially help a few individuals by whisking them out of China. The French consular authorities also helped many dissidents who made it to British Hong Kong: passage to France was easily granted. The Socialist government of President François Mitterrand, his Prime Minister Michel Rocard, and the Socialist party as a whole, supported the granting of political asylum to hundreds of these students. Most of them stayed in France long enough to arrange their next move to the United States. The most media-famous dissident, Wuer Kaixi, transited to France before ending up in Taiwan. An ironic choice of destination: in 1989 Taiwan was still under the single party rule of the Kuo Min Tang.

Many of these dissidents did however stay in France. A group of French sympathizers from the start gave them moral and material support. Such is the case of Marie Holzman, a China specialist who had studied in China right after the Cultural Revolution and who attended the first political trial against a dissident many years before the Tienanmen. Her curiosity earned her a permanent expulsion from the People's Republic. She has appeared at every dissidents' meeting, and keeps the cause alive, out of love for the Chinese people.

The whole of French public opinion got fired up. Being favorable to the Communist regime had suddenly become very uncool.

Back to 1989: the welcoming attitude of François Mitterrand and the Socialist Party meant that the United States and Canada did not become the sole beacons of democracy. The French Communist Party took no clear stand, and had become irrelevant in foreign affairs since it backed General Jaruzelski against Lech Walesa in Poland some years earlier. The French right was paradoxically divided over how to react: human rights often conflict with realpolitik which is a Gaullist specialty. Two slivers of the French right did join the pro-dissident wave: the extreme right, out of anti-communism; and the Christian Democrats types, those who place Liberty on an ideological pedestal above Nation. The NGOs and associations that belonged to the Socialist Party's galaxy all pressed to help the dissidents. So did the Catholic Church. The alternative and left-leaning press joined in. The whole of French public opinion got fired up. Being favorable to the Communist regime had suddenly become very uncool. Appearing on Paris's Trocadero place (where human rights events are staged weekly) with the dissidents became very ''in.'' A boat called the Goddess of Democracy was chartered out of France to broadcast radio content to the dissidents from off the Chinese coast - the enterprise ended in semi-failure, with the boat bankrupt in Taiwan.

Helping Dissidents and Taiwan too

Other factors added to pro-dissident sentiment: the emerging infatuation with all things Chinese, {ed note: delete comma}and the wholesale disenchantment with everything Soviet or dictatorial. This mood was positively palpable in Paris at the time. Some people were sending endless faxes to the Chinese government to jam their reception capacities. My observation was that France helped the dissidents even faster than the U.S. did, because the French Left establishment may have been proud of undercutting the U.S.'s new coziness with the authorities in Beijng.

Yet Taipei saw an opportunity: why not buy French weapons?

But the call of America, and the offers to teach from several American universities, ended up emptying France of at least half the dissidents. The tradition of appointing foreign dissidents as faculty was nearly unknown in France at the time, and the diplomatic reaction of all Western Democracies to the Communist regime was lead by the U.S. in the United Nations. And then the French Left lost the 1993 legislative elections, a new conservative Prime Minister was imposed on Mitterrand, and the whole China bashing began to end as Realpolitik.reasserted itself. But not before one last blow was delivered to the Chinese Communist Party.

Frigates for Taiwan: A Side-Effect of Tienanmen

While the democratic governments were busy diplomatically freezing out the Communist regime, a small number of Taiwanese lobbyists found an avenue to the decision levels of French arms sales. Suddenly, Taiwan reared its head and Ministers were listening. The island's government fancies itself the Republic of China founded by the Kuo Min Tang in 1911, but has had no diplomatic relations with France since 1961 or the U.S. since 1981, because any country that recognizes the People's Republic in Beijing must break relations with the Republic of China in Taipei. Yet Taipei saw an opportunity: why not buy French weapons? Strangely, Washington was punishing Beijing commercially while still not daring to sell Taipei heavy weapons. A quick reminder: when any State recognizes the People's Republic, it relinquishes all heavy arms sales to Taiwan in the bargain.

In the early 1990s, France's Socialist government, taking advantage of the diplomatic isolation of the People's Republic as a result of the Tienanmen repression, dared to break this restriction and sold the Taiwanese navy several top class frigates - Lafayettes, indispensable defensive ships with computerized missile tracking - along with a squadron of Mirage jet fighters for the Taiwanese Air Force. The People's Republic was furious; French contracts in China were frozen. But France sold and delivered these heavy weapons to Taiwan, and the island's defenses were much strengthened. Unfortunately, the illicit commissions and kickbacks on these sales were astronomical, and many politicians, both Socialist and conservative, seem to have been gratified, although the inquests have never fully revealed who did what. Of course, for the Tienanmen dissidents, it really did not matter. They were no longer an issue. Economics was the issue, and arms sales are big money.

Chirac the Oriental

With the Left losing the post of Prime Minister in 1993, the mood in France changed: the Conservatives, who went on to carry the presidency in 1995 with Jacques Chirac, started rebuilding the bridges with the People's Republic. Chirac is a complex man, and his knowledge of the Far East is tremendous. He had been several dozens of times to Japan, China and Korea, and he figured that both the dissidents and Taiwan were to be sacrificed. Elegantly, he continued to supply spare parts to the Taiwanese Navy and Air Force, and no dissident was expelled to China.

In Chirac's mind, as democracy was not to be in Mainland China, and even though it had finally arrived in Taiwan, the economic reality of the Chinese market carried the day. The French president organized this reversal with consummate speed, egged on by Bill Clinton's similar turnaround. The arms contract to Taiwan was never to be repeated and, in 1997, the Taiwanese authorities took revenge by cancelling the nearly-signed contract to build the French High Speed Train on the island.

Better to be Tibetan than a Chinese Dissident in France:

Twenty years to a day later, the impact of the Chinese dissidents on French public opinion is desperately slim. Everyone has learned to live with the People's Republic, and accept the Communist Party as a lesser evil. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just like the U.S. State Department, periodically asks the Chinese government to improve its human rights record notwithstanding that China forbids multiparty elections of nearly every sort. This superficial conscience healing is unhelpful to the dissidents. They had even hoped France would boycott the Olympics in Beijing, and the foremost dissident in France, former political prisoner Wei Jinsheng, tried to raise consciousness on this point to any journalist like myself willing to take notes.

The French public has however found a new cause in the Tibetans. An example of this: during the Olympic Flame Marathon in Paris, the pro-Tibetan hecklers almost managed to put out the torch, despite the French police. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy has said positive things about the Dalai Lama. Of course, one cause for this increased Tibetan sympathy is the inroads being made by Buddhist ideas in France. A good example of this is the fact that the Dalai Lama's spokesman is a Frenchman, son of a very famous journalist-intellectual of the Liberal right (François Revel).

In the end, at the ceremony at Trocadero Square on Wednesday the 3rd of June, a good part of the several hundred protestors were Tibetan. A strange twist of history, considering how little the dissidents seemed to care about the cause of Tibetan national rights. And a strange twist for France: it is incapable to be a bridgehead for either Chinese democracy or Tibetan rights, even though public opinion has often been favorable to these things; and it is unable to disrupt the China-U.S. relationship by playing a French hand in the great China game. Being the capital of a Free China was just too big for Paris, or for France, or for any country in the world. But it was almost believable for a while.

Harold Hyman is a Franco-American journalist, based in Paris, specializing in foreign affairs and cultural diplomacy. He works for BFM TV.

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