BEIJING (AP) -- European business officials warned Wednesday that calls in China for a boycott of French products since the raucous Olympic torch relay in Paris could spark a backlash against Chinese exports.
France and high-profile French retailer Carrefour have been singled out by Chinese nationalists who saw the April 7 protests against the torch relay by pro-Tibetan groups and others as an insult to their national pride.
Anger climaxed this past weekend with protests at the French Embassy in Beijing and at Carrefour outlets in at least nine Chinese cities.
Calls to boycott French products have circulated mainly on the Internet, the realm mainly of college students and young urban Chinese, buoyed by the government's initial blessing of the protests.
Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said any large-scale boycott would likely hurt Chinese workers and companies and could be met by similar action against Chinese products in Europe.
''This kind of thing is a slippery slope downhill. Once you start talking about boycotts, there will always be retaliation on the other side. Where do you stop?'' Wuttke told reporters in Beijing.
The number of protesters outside Carrefour outlets was estimated to range from several dozen to 1,000. They waved Chinese flags, unfurled anti-French and anti-Carrefour banners, sang patriotic songs and burned French flags.
In the southern city of Zhuzhou, protesters reportedly attacked a young American teacher after he emerged from a local Carrefour, although details were sketchy.
Accounts on numerous Internet boards said the man was punched, pushed and chased and was only rescued by police after taking refuge in a taxi. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it had no information it could release about the incident under rules requiring a privacy waver.
Huang Guihua, an official with the foreign affairs office of the Zhuzhou School Affiliated with Beijing Normal University, said the man was a teacher at the school, but denied there had been an assault.
''He had the wrong feeling that the protest was about foreigners in general,'' Huang said. ''Then he started to panic and thought he might go for help.''
Perhaps concerned over its image ahead of the Olympics, China's government began signaling this week it was ready to put the dispute to rest.
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the Carrefour demonstrations were ''encouraging and touching,'' but added that ''we do not agree with some people's radical actions.''
China's Ministry of Commerce also welcomed recent statements by Carrefour denying that it supported exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
''We also noticed that recently the French government and enterprises have taken actions that improve and preserve the mutual relationship,'' the ministry said. ''We welcome their expression.''
Chinese newspapers on Wednesday pointed out that 95 percent of the products sold by Carrefour in China are produced domestically, and that it directly employs 40,000 Chinese.
''European supermarkets in China mainly sell Chinese products and mainly employ Chinese people. This is worth bearing in mind,'' said Michael O'Sullivan, secretary general of the EU chamber.
Anger against Carrefour appeared to have extended to its Chinese Web site. On Wednesday, it posted a note saying it was undergoing ''upgrade and maintenance'' -- an apparent sign it had been hacked.
Beijing's move to rein in the budding nationalism follows a familiar pattern. Authorities used state media to order students back to class and put a quick end to past protests and spasms of intense nationalism such as those that followed the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.
Even amid the changed tone, China reasserted its hard line against the Dalai Lama, whose supporters it accuses of instigating deadly riots in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, on March 14.
Beijing has labeled the Lhasa riot and related protests in Tibetan areas an attempt to split the region from China and to sabotage the Beijing Olympics.