A View from France

“China’s New World Order,” trumpeted CNN after the mid-May Belt and Road Forum. Media—and academics, analysts, markets—all around the world echoed the theme, devoting themselves to China and global transformation. But in France, the press found itself preoccupied with a different revolution: The victory of a 39-year-old self-proclaimed maverick Emmanuel Macron in the May 7 presidential election—and, with it, the demise of traditional French politics. Macron beat his rival, the far-Right Front National’s Marine Le Pen, in the first run-off of modern French history not to feature a member of the traditional left or right. The new president represents En Marche, a “movement” turned party of his own making that promises to “break boundaries,” “bring about change,” and “build the society of tomorrow.” At home, that means a Nordic-style economic program, combining a stimulus program with fiscal discipline, and labor reform with an expanded welfare state. In Europe, Macron calls for greater cooperation and integration. Internationally—and especially on China—he stands for nearly complete uncertainty.

Macron’s stated program emphasizes global transformations: Instability stemming from Trump’s election, Russian adventurism, a Europe threatened by Brexit, and a playing field increasingly tilted toward China. Nowhere does France’s new president offer a tangible response—that is, aside from a stronger European Union. He has proffered little in the way of foreign policy, nothing when it comes to Asia. France’s Les Echos writes of his international agenda: “The relationship with China and Asia? Still to be decided.” How can we expect the new face of France to address China’s global order? Despite inattention to the new “Silk Road,” Macron may soon have to decide whether he is willing to help steer Europe toward closer ties with China—particularly in the face of Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. 

There are few tangible hints thus far. With Paris’s new government barely formed, its decisions at the Belt and Road Forum were decided by expedience rather than strategy. No official member of the government attended. Instead, Macron quickly appointed former prime minister and early En Marche supporter Jean-Pierre Raffarin—known for his deep ties to China—as France’s delegate. He carried with him to Beijing a personal letter from Macron addressed to Xi Jinping. Yet at the close of the conference, France joined the other EU member states in rejecting China’s prepared statement—a unified response that reportedly took Beijing by surprise. For some, Raffarin’s role suggests a new warmth in Franco-Chinese relations. Others argue that his ad hoc status and refusal to sign Beijing’s statement indicate disinterest, coldness, or both. “It could be that the French were looking to send a message of their reticence in relation to the project,” theorizes John Seaman of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). “Or the summit came at a time when the government was changing hands in Paris and no senior official capable of representing either the old or the new government was in place.” Others harp on that last idea—that there is nothing to say: It is simply too early.

It is certainly still early. The legislative elections have yet to take place; Macron’s cabinet remains provisional. All signs suggest that if he has a position vis-à-vis Beijing at all, it boils down to the fragmented, piecemeal stances that have characterized much of modern France’s China policy. However, the key tenets of his doctrine do suggest a broad outline. Macron’s priorities lie in the intertwined quests for a strong Europe, free trade, and economic growth. He intends to pursue those goals through a “gaullo-mitterandian” line, stressing French, and European, self-reliance.

Those objectives—as well Macron and his ministers’ backgrounds—suggest that this government will seek to engage with Beijing. But Paris will do so cautiously, and through the multilateral prism of the European Union, working to partner with Germany in forging a consistent European position. If such a tack is successful, a unified EU can benefit from integration while promoting its interests: Standards, transparency, free trade, and, most of all, cohesiveness. Macron has what Yves Tiberghien, director of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research and executive director of the UBC China Council, calls an “element of Napoleon.” He is a strategic thinker. He knows what China has to offer. But he is also abundantly aware of the risks. This administration will pursue partnership, but partnership discussed around Brussels conference tables rather than moonlit strolls down the Champs-Elysées.

While France and China have long maintained smooth relations, the dynamic has also tended to be short on substance. As Beijing consistently points out, de Gaulle was the first major Western chief of state to recognize the PRC, doing so in 1964. President Sarkozy strained the cordial relationship—notably when he met with the Dalai Lama in 2008. But the dynamic rebounded during President Hollande’s term, in large part thanks to Foreign Minister and China-enthusiast Laurent Fabius. He worked closely with China on the Paris Climate Agreement. Still, mutual goodwill has yielded few tangible results. Geopolitically, many in the often-introverted France simply view China as too far away to be a top priority. Economically, trade cooperation has faltered. Where Germany imports some 40 percent of its goods from China and 15 percent from the United Kingdom, France’s figure stands at only about nine. China ranks as France’s eighth largest export market; fifth and fourth respectively for Germany and the United Kingdom. France continues carefully to screen foreign investment. As for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Paris has no national-level policy at all. Alice Eckman of IFRI describes it as a “secondary issue” for French actors. Responses and pitches exist exclusively at the firm and, occasionally, local level. One French sinologist jokes that 0.1 percent of politicians know what BRI is.

To that arm’s length history, add Macron’s heavy emphasis on the domestic. A former minister of the economy and investment banker, the centrist Macron is concerned primarily with France, and Europe’s, economic growth. Asia barely appears in his policy program—except when it comes to acknowledging the needs for greater environmental cooperation, crisis management on the continent, and the potential for a transversal Brussels-Beijing accord. Macron has been to China only once. Tiberghian explains that neither the new president nor his close En Marche associates has any experience with China. It is significant that Macron renamed the Minister of Foreign Affairs the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs. Sylvie Goulard, his pick for Minister of Defense, has served in the European Parliament since 2009. She has no Asia experience to speak of.

As for Macron’s global vision, certain things are eminently clear. He seeks strong EU cooperation—a union apart from the increasingly volatile American presence, able independently to pursue its own interests. He has modeled himself as a champion of globalization and economic liberalism. An economist and a strategic thinker, he sees China’s growing weight and its contrast with today’s America. He is well aware of the shifting global winds. His Quai d’Orsay is tuned into talk of a new world order. Most concretely, Macron’s top foreign policy priority appears to be the EU and the Franco-German partnership.

To some, those broad elements might invite a new Franco-Chinese alignment. The post-Davos Xi has become the poster boy of economic liberalism, his rhetoric devoted to free trade and globalization. As President Trump isolates the United States and rejects the Paris climate accord, Beijing emerges as a leading global player in environmental—and, more broadly, multilateral—cooperation. Germany is already heavily integrated with China. And the French—or, more broadly, European —concerns with respect to Trump’s Washington could mean a greater willingness to collaborate with Beijing. As economy minister, Macron the liberal authorized selling government shares of the Toulouse airport to Chinese CASIL Europe. Of course, that willingness is also a function of need. Faced with low growth, aging infrastructure, the migrant crisis, and accompanying political unrest, France has real incentives to integrate economically with China—integration that Beijing is more than willing to sweeten, eyeing as it does the European market for BRI’s endpoint. And Macron’s environmental goals will require Franco-Chinese cooperation.

Didier Chaudet, Asia specialist and head of the Centre d’Analyse de la Politique Étrangère, writes that Macron’s emphasis on globalization and free trade, as well as his known wariness of Trump, make the new French president a boon for Beijing. Days after the election, Shanghai’s LePaper.cn cited the same phenomena in an article headlined “Macron Can Reposition China-French Relations.” To that, UBC’s Tiberghien adds the two country’s parallel positions on environmental concerns. He also notes that Macron is close to Germany, and Germany to China. The French President is “likely to engage pragmatically with China; to be convinced that France must have economic engagement with China.”

But the devil is in the details and not all cooperation is created equal. While broad principles and global trends lay the framework for increasingly developed Franco-Chinese engagement, grittier specifics of the Macron government imply that such engagement will be gradual and cautious, even wary. If the French president sees China’s long-term strategic importance, he is also decidedly sensitive to the risks it presents – and to the threat of mirages.

Macron has enough experience in international economics to parse Xi Jinping’s rhetoric on economic liberalism. During his tenure as minister, he opposed granting the PRC market economy status. He also vocally tackled the matter of Chinese dumping, seeking European partnership against the practice. Macron continues to stand firm on those positions. “We will strengthen anti-dumping instruments,” he wrote in his campaign platform, “to fight against disloyal competition from countries like China and India in the steel industry.”  He has also called for a European screening system to protect strategic sectors—similar, as he puts it, to “what China and the United States have in place.” His stance on France’s enormous trade deficit with China remains unclear. But he is certainly aware that China offers no reciprocity on investments. Expected gains are limited at best. The Toulouse airport may have been the exception not the rule.

The new president’s cabinet picks reflect that wariness. Jean-Pierre Raffarin may have been an early Macron supporter. So was Dominique de Villepin, also a former prime minister and influential pro-China voice. But neither has an official role in the Macron government. Instead, the president selected former Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian to handle international affairs. Of all branches of the French government, the Ministry of Defense is the coldest on China. While the Ministry of International Affairs might stress the “strategic partnership,” the Ministry of Defense consistently warns of Chinese assertiveness, breaches of international law, threats to French allies. Such was evidently the case under Le Drian’s tenure. He called for coordinated EU patrols in the South China Sea last year.  In 2015, he intensified military cooperation with Japan.

As for the Trump effect, Macron has made it very clear that he does not wish to switch from one unequal dynamic to another. The French are quick to point out that the world does not need to be a bipolar one. The answer to a chilling relationship with Washington is not a warmer one with China. Rather, Macron seeks a stronger, self-reliant Europe. Here, he seems entirely in line with Merkel’s post G7 summit declaration that Europe must “take our fate into our own hands.” And the contrast between today’s French and German governments and those of the United Kingdom and the United States may just have given the pair sufficient legitimacy to do so.

Ultimately Macron’s government does not mean an open door to cooperation with China. Nor does it necessarily mean a new emphasis on the bilateral relationship. Rather, it seems that Macron will pursue greater cooperation and integration of a European sort, driven by a Franco-German partnership. He will work to ensure that the necessary economic integration be multilateral, and that it be based on open and transparent rules, reciprocity, and European as well as Chinese interests. If Paris and Berlin succeed, they could usher in a new era of EU cohesiveness. They could break the trend of China dealing bilaterally, or in small groups, with European Union states (as with the 16 + 1 initiative). And they could broaden the Sino-centrism of BRI.

Of course, this is by no means a guarantee. Macron’s lofty ambitions belie the deep fractures of his state and the continent. An Elabe survey assigned Macron a confidence rating of 45 percent—lower than that of any French president in 20 years. Polls suggest that he will win a legislative majority. But if he fails, the country is likely to see another five years of gridlock and frustration like those that characterized Hollande’s term. And though the Macron-Merkel partnership may appear strong for now, it comes with its own risks: Can the two leaders really stand together on a matter as rife with competition as Chinese economic cooperation? Their vision of the European Union may be a supranational one. But as Beijing knows well, economic competition rarely escapes Westphalian principles. Finally, even if Macron and Merkel can hold a united front, will the rest of the Union follow? A Franco-German partnership is certainly a powerful force. The two states’ legitimacy as leaders is indeed at an all-time high. But historically EU coherence has proved elusive. And Beijing has shown itself more than capable of exploiting competition, divisions, and distrust.

That said, a sense of Macron’s ambitions does offer a sense of where to look for clues as his government matures. There are of course the obvious suspects. Domestically, the legislative elections, Macron’s statements, and those of his ministers will be telling. Internationally, the next months will see a host of high-profile international dialogues: Shangri-La, the EU-China Summit, and the G20 to name a few. While we may not see a coherent China program emerge, Paris is likely to develop telling positions on the trade deficit, Chinese investment, maybe even democracy and human rights.

Moreover, if Macron’s ambitions are what they seem, the key indicator of Franco-Chinese relations—or, more fittingly, Franco-European relations—will be the Franco-German dynamic. Can the two powers remain unified, and can they forge a coherent EU-wide policy? Clearly, this question is most pertinent when it comes to matters directly related to China: BRI, the European Connectivity Platform, environmental cooperation, the EU-China “transversal agreement” Macron promoted in his platform. But today’s France-China dynamic exists within the larger EU-world one. The strength of the Macron-Merkel team, and their ability to lead the continent, will determine Europe’s relationship with China.

At least for now, Beijing may want to get used to the united European response of the BRI summit.