Macron moves relations into high gear
French and Chinese presidents are key proponents of continued globalization and international cooperation
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, has just paid his third visit to China this year, underlining the importance of a bilateral relationship that has moved into high gear since French President Emmanuel Macron came to power last year.
Macron, who went to China for the first time in January, told foreign ambassadors in Paris last month that he planned to visit every year as part of France’s outreach to China and wider Asia. Referring to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Macron said he hoped France could work to preserve its own interests and world vision while engaging in a constructive dialogue with China.
“We can’t pretend it does not exist,” Macron said of China’s modern revival of the ancient Silk Road trade routes.
In recent years, France has been one of the main European destinations for Chinese investment, which doubled to more than $3 billion between 2013 and 2015 with the acquisition of French assets.
However, that trend was not always welcomed by those on the protectionist-minded wing of French politics. When Chinese investors took over the quintessentially French holiday resort company Club Med after a long takeover battle in 2015, the right-wing National Front was outraged.
Florian Phillipot, the National Front’s vicepresident, said the sale meant surrendering to China a company that was “an ambassador of our lifestyle” and he accused the government at the time of a total lack of economic patriotism.
Since then, though, the National Front has been trounced in the 2017 election, which saw Macron defeat National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. French voters opted for the outward-looking internationalist over a protectionist rival who might have slammed the door on the evolving France-China relationship.
In the era of US President Donald Trump, Macron and President Xi Jinping have emerged as the key proponents of continued globalization and international cooperation — not least on climate change — in the face of growing protectionist sentiment, not only in the US but among a variety of European political movements.
During Le Drian’s latest visit to China, he and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, said they were working not only to stimulate bilateral relations but to preserve the multilateral trading system and defend World Trade Organization rules.
At home, the French president nevertheless has to satisfy the French public that his country stands to benefit from closer ties. Evidence of that came this year during a visit to China by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
At a time when French officials were keen to maintain the momentum in the wake of the high-profile Macron visit, Phillipe secured an agreement with China to lift a 2001 ban on French beef imports that was linked to concerns over so-called mad cow disease.
As a bonus, Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, also confirmed to Philippe China’s continued interest in a planned purchase of Airbus aircraft that has been promoted by the French.
As the bilateral relationship evolves, Le Drian will continue to figure as a key player on the French side and is a suitable choice to spearhead continuing negotiations.
Le Drian was no stranger to China even before his latest appointment. As a former president of his home region of Brittany, and even before that, he helped foster bilateral ties with China’s Shandong province dating back to 1985.
It was in that year that Brittany signed a bilateral cooperation agreement with Shandong, which has led to three decades of cultural and economic exchanges and drawn Chinese investment to the French region. The two regions have much in common in terms of climate and economies built on agriculture, the sea, industry and tourism.
Although the Macron presidency is seen as a boost for a new era of closer bilateral ties, the between Brittany and Shandong shows that the Franco-Chinese relationship has a well-established history.