French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his decision to attend Friday's opening of the Beijing Games as a step toward coaxing greater reforms from China and brushed off criticism for avoiding a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

"We don't boycott a quarter of humanity," Sarkozy said as he met with French athletes ahead of the evening's opening ceremony. "The Olympics are the opportunity to accompany China on a path toward openness, tolerance, progress and the respect of our values."

Sarkozy was expected to meet with Chinese leaders before returning to France.

Initially, Sarkozy had threatened to boycott the opening of the Aug. 8-24 games over China's crackdown in Tibet earlier this year. He later changed his mind but remained vague about whether he would meet the Dalai Lama next week in France.

Sarkozy's office announced Wednesday that the president would not meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader, issuing a carefully worded statement that suggested it was the Dalai's Lama's decision, not Sarkozy's, to forgo a meeting.

"I will have the occasion to meet him later," Sarkozy said Friday, referring to the Dalai Lama.

Sarkozy's critics accuse him of bowing to Chinese pressure and wanting to secure major Chinese contracts for French companies.

The Dalai Lama begins an 11-day stay in France on Tuesday.

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