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Paris turns red to honor China

The Eiffel Tower was turned red to celebrate the Chinese New Year on Saturday, but it might just as well be blushing at the country's ardent embrace of all things Chinese on the eve of the Chinese president's arrival.

President Hu Jintao's first state visit to France, which begins Monday, coincides with the 40th anniversary of the two countries' diplomatic relations. The anniversary is being commemorated with a national, government-sponsored campaign that has produced an outpouring of Orientalism in the French capital.

As part of the country's "Year of China" promotion, officials closed Paris' grand avenue, the Champs-Elysees, on Saturday afternoon for a huge parade dominated by a dancing dragon _ the first time the avenue has been taken over by an intrinsically non-French event since German troops marched down it during World War II.

The parade, sponsored in part by China, included hundreds of Chinese citizens and thousands of Chinese emigres living in and around Paris. The only things missing, though, were firecrackers, banned for security reasons, and adherents of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement the Chinese government has banned. The group's request to join the festivities was denied.

Chalk the Gallic eagerness up to China's market potential and its emerging role as a strategic node in the multipolar world that France and China hope will eventually supplant the world's sole-superpower status quo.

"If we want to give a boost to relationships between the civil societies, if we want to create contacts and understanding, for people to come over, we choose a particular diplomatic moment and make a cultural event out of it," said Laurence Auer, deputy spokeswoman for President Jacques Chirac's office.

Between dinners, Chirac and his wife plan to escort Hu and his wife to an exhibition on Confucius, whose philosophy _ once discredited by the Chinese Communists _ has been revived in China as a validation of authoritarian rule.

But some people are grumbling that all the fawning is unseemly, if not imbalanced.

"Maintaining state-to-state relations and developing cultural and economic exchanges with this great country shouldn't lead us to keep silent on the absence of democracy in China," said Jack Lang, a former minister in France's past socialist administration. He said that during the festivities on the Champs-Elysees, the French should remember the prodemocracy students killed in Beijing in 1989.

There are other sour notes. France's Nobel Prize-winning author, Gao Xingjian, whose works have been banned in China, was not invited to the Paris Book Salon, which is featuring a special section on Chinese writers as part of the "Year of China" campaign. Agence France-Presse reported his editor surmises that Gao's glaring absence from the salon is the result of self-censorship or pressure from the Chinese government. The salon's organizers could not be reached for comment.

More than 300 events in and around the capital are commemorating China's history and culture, varying from an exhibition about China's 17th century Kangxi emperor at the palace of Versailles to dance performances at the Paris Casino by China's most famous transsexual, Jin Xing.

Even EuroDisney is getting into the act: The theme park shunned by so many French citizens as crassly American will be decorated in red and gold and play host to presentations of Chinese calligraphy, kites and the martial art tai chi.

The centerpiece of the celebrations is the red-lit Eiffel Tower, one of the rare times the tower has been given special lighting and the only time it has been lit a single color beside the salmon glow that it has worn nightly since 1985.

Fifteen hundred kilowatts of crimson light from 300 fixtures on and around the structure turned the brown filigree tower ruby-red at 8 p.m. Saturday. The performance will be repeated every night from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. until Thursday _ long enough to cover Hu's visit.

The French government runs cultural campaigns honoring many countries, but none has made such a stir. Few people noticed past commemorations of Hungary or the Czech Republic, and last year's "Year of Algeria" passed nearly unnoticed by most French, even though France has millions of Algerian residents or citizens of Algerian descent.

"It would have been nice to have seen the Eiffel Tower in green and white with a crescent in the middle," said Mohand Abdelkader Madi, president of the Algerian Community Union of Paris, although he said he had no complaints about the festivities.