By and  on April 21, 2008

BEIJING — Sporadic anti-French protests, quickly quelled by police, erupted at Carrefour stores across China over the weekend, even as the Chinese government took initial steps to quell rising nationalist fervor and anti-French sentiments that threaten to upset the surging businesses of foreign retailers.

More than three dozen police officers flanked the entrances of a Carrefour location in central Beijing on Saturday and, though they would not answer any questions about their presence, Chinese media reported that protesters staged an anti-Carrefour demonstration earlier in the morning at the store. State media also reported that thousands of demonstrators showed up at the French supermarket, with smaller protests around the country. A heavy police presence continued in Beijing's embassy district, particularly around the French and British embassies. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry urged Internet users — who have been calling for boycotts of Carrefour and other French brands over the country's protest-plagued global Olympic torch relays — to behave calmly and rationally and to focus their attention on China's economic progress instead.

The official Xinhua news agency published several stories decrying pro-Tibet demonstrations during the Chinese Olympic torch run in Paris, but said Chinese should refrain from extremist actions in response. "Of course, we are angry with disruption of the Olympic torch relay and the activities to split China," Xinhua quoted Prof. Zhang Shengjun of the Beijing Normal University as saying. "We should not be as irrational as them when voicing patriotism."

Meanwhile, Chinese media, trying to further quiet nationalist upheaval against the retailer, widely reported statements by Carrefour denying any funding link to the Dalai Lama or any interference in China's politics. The public outcry emerged over Internet rumors that Bernard Arnault, a Carrefour shareholder and the chief executive office of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, was a financial backer of the Tibetan leader. Arnault, in a statement also widely published in Europe and China, denied any link and Carrefour has released a statement saying it fully supported Chinese sovereignty and the unification of China. Arnault also said the boycott effort has not yet had any impact on business in China.

In an interview published in Sunday's Journal du Dimanche, Carrefour chief executive Jose Luis Duran also cited "no significant impact" on business in its Chinese hypermarkets, while stressing, "The situation is very serious."Activists, using the Internet to stir action, are calling for larger countrywide boycotts and protests May 1 at Carrefour, which has expanded its China business significantly in recent years. The Web site proclaims: "Tibet will always be part of China!"

Web sites calling for protests and boycotts of Carrefour and other Western businesses remain unblocked and full of new postings daily. China is increasingly polarized over the Tibetan independence issue, as government supporters decry Western media portrayals of the violent March uprisings in Tibet and subsequent government crackdown. Protests that interrupted the Paris relay of the torch fueled the fire. "Adding the French people's support for Tibetan separatists during the Paris leg of the torch relay, there is truly no reason to give the French money by buying their goods," the boycott notice said. "Let them see the Chinese people's power and the power of the Internet."

Over the weekend in Paris, meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators voiced support for a unified China and the upcoming Beijing Olympic games. At Beijing's oldest Carrefour location, brisk business carried on as usual Friday. Many shoppers had heard about the urgings to boycott, but said they would not heed them since Carrefour is widely seen as a reliable purveyor of reasonably priced, quality goods. "Business is business; politics is politics," said one middle-aged man surnamed Yao. "A boycott does not do any good." Other shoppers and store employees expressed similar sentiments.

The calls for boycotts extend to other brands, but there appears to be widespread confusion on the Internet over which brands are actually French. On one popular chat site, a list of brands targeted for boycott action included a long list of French brands, but also several companies from other European countries and the United States.

As a nationwide chain with roughly 400 stores in China, Carrefour is perhaps the most vulnerable to protests and boycott actions. In a statement about the political actions last week, the company noted that 98 percent of its employees here are Chinese, and that 80 percent of products sold in Carrefour in China are sourced locally. "In China, Carrefour and its 40,000 Chinese employees focuses all its attention on satisfying its 2 million clients daily," the company said. "Carrefour never takes a side on political subjects and, as most people do, it wishes that the 2008 Olympic Games are organized under the sign of share and progress, which are at the heart of Carrefour's values."Yet the movement has momentum and the atmosphere around the French embassy here is tense, with several police cars and uniformed and plainclothes officers on the watch outside — far greater security detail than usual. Political discourse, protests and other actions are strictly limited by government controls in China. On growing anti-French sentiment, the government appeared to allow anti-French sentiment to grow, up until Friday when state media started publishing calls for calm.

Anti-Carrefour groups have applied for protest permits in more than a dozen cities for May 1, but as yet there has been no word on whether the demonstrations will be approved. "It's true that some Chinese people expressed their views and emotions in the past few days, but there is a reason for this," Jiang Yu, spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in a news conference. "This is actually something the French side should ponder over. I believe the Chinese citizens will express their reasonable appeal in accordance with the law. On the one hand, France has been saying that they value the China-France relations, while on the other hand, we have seen something happen in France which the Chinese people can not understand and accept."

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