Making Beijing Respect France
French President Emmanuel Macron wants insurance against Chinese hegemony. Therefore, Paris is seeking cooperation with Delhi and Canberra and pushing Berlin to Europeanize economic relations with Beijing.
In 1974, the comedy “Les Chinois à Paris” created a minor diplomatic crisis. The plot of the film: Communist China has conquered Europe. France falls without any resistance. Setting up their headquarters in the Galeries Lafayette department store, the Chinese turn Europe into their economic hinterland: Germany is ordered to produce cars, the UK bowler hats, and the Dutch bicycles. The French offer their services as experienced collaborators.
When the movie hit the screens, Beijing’s ambassador to Paris was appalled by the portrayal of China as an imperialist power and threatened “consequences” should the Élysée not ban the film. The left-wing newspaper Libération called for a boycott of the film. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and other French intellectuals were celebrating Mao’s “cultural revolution” at the time.
The film was meant as an implausible comedy and a parody of France under German occupation; but maybe it was just ahead of its time. With its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Beijing is now trying to plug Europe into the Chinese sphere of influence. And the Chinese are quite literally taking control of the Galeries Lafayette; In non-COVID-19-times 30 percent of the luxury department store’s revenue is generated by Chinese tourists!
But contrary to the movie’s French submission, France is today at the forefront of Europe’s resistance to China. On the one hand, Paris simply doesn’t like anyone else telling it what it has to do. Mr. “Strategic Autonomy” keeps arguing he does not want Europe to have to choose between a new Chinese and an old US hegemony. But there are two further reasons: geopolitics and economics.
For Paris, Beijing’s hegemonic posture poses a security challenge. 1.6 million French citizens live in the Indo-Pacific. France’s overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans include huge exclusive economic zones. Paris wants brakes on Chinese expansionism and maritime law to be upheld in the region.
Macron is thus trying to build an “Indo-Pacific axis” between Paris, Delhi, Canberra, and perhaps even Tokyo in order to increase its weight vis-à-vis Beijing. “If we want to be respected as equals by China, we have to organize ourselves,” Macron said in 2018 at an Australian naval base.
Since that speech, France has concluded a strategic partnership with Australia. It also regularly holds “two-plus-two” talks between defense and foreign ministers with Japan to discuss maritime issues in the East and South China Seas. What’s more, the Élysée sends warships to pass through the Taiwan Strait and patrol around New Caledonia’s coast.
And Paris wants Beijing to take notice: When France sent a submarine through the South China Sea in February, defense minister Florence Parly tweeted this was "striking proof" of France’s capacity to deploy far away and for a long time together with its strategic partners Australia, Japan, and the United States. The China Daily responded with an editorial titled, “French military has no place in South China Sea.”
Of course, Macron hopes that establishing France as an “Indo-Pacific power” will yield some further benefits: Arms sales in a region that is diversifying away from US suppliers is on objective. Australia has signed a contract for 12 French submarines, India is considering stepping up its order of 36 Rafale fighter jets, Indonesia wants French fighters and submarines and Malaysia French frigates.
The other is an increased geopolitical importance for France and a rebalancing of Beijing’s European focus from Berlin to Paris. This seems to be working. China’s diplomats bark at France, but at the same time, Beijing is trying to mollify Macron. Huawei promised to build its first European manufacturing site in France. In 2019, Beijing signed an agreement protecting geographical indications of French cheese and wine, a long-standing obsession of French trade diplomacy. Macron is happy to take these tributes but, so far, he hasn’t offered much in return.
That’s in part because when it comes to the economy, Paris—unlike Berlin—has seen China’s rise always as more of a threat than an opportunity. Yes, the Chinese have become the most important buyers of French luxury goods. But the widening of China’s French trade surplus runs parallel to France’s multi-decade decline as an industrial power.
Moreover, Paris has a tradition of thinking about the economy in strategic terms. Asked whether France will exclude Huawei from France’s 5G network, Macron replied that “I’m just saying we have two European manufacturers: Ericsson and Nokia,“ before adding “this is a sovereign matter,” as it concerns data protection and security issues. In Beijing, Macron stated that the BRI cannot just be “one-way” and that “these roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, transforming those that they cross into vassals.”
Paris has no illusions about its lack of leverage vis-à-vis Beijing. The Élysée thus wants to Europeanize economic relations with China. When President Xi Jinping visited Paris in March 2019, Macron asked Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to join their meetings. At the end of the year, Macron invited then European trade commissioner Phil Hogan and Germany’s research minister to join him on his trip to China. Addressing a group of French and German business leaders in Beijing, he said: “The more we play the Franco-German and in particular the European card, the more we are credible. The better results we will have.”
And Macron wants to set the right incentives for negotiations with China. It was the French president who initiated the idea of an EU-wide foreign investment screening mechanism, which was adopted in 2019. Today, it is Paris that wants to strengthen the EU’s anti-subsidy measures in extra-European trade and pushes for a revival of industrial policy. When Macron supports the German initiative for an investment deal with China, however, he does it for Merkel’s sake. Paris is no fan of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) which it considers weak in substance.
Defending the CAI at home also comes at an increasing political cost, as China has turned France into a battleground of its new “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Beijing’s embassy makes the French news bulletins for example when it is spreading fake pandemic news claiming that employees at French nursing homes are collectively abandoning their jobs and leaving retirees to die of hunger. Most recently, the embassy attacked a French academic supporting a trip by French senators to Taiwan as a “small-time thug” and a “crazed hyena” on Twitter. Beijing’s envoy was summoned to the Quai d’Orsay. But the embassy tweets: “There are people who wish to see Chinese diplomacy become the diplomacy of 'lambs,' who weather attacks without batting an eye. That era is well and truly over!”
Unmoved, Macron stands by Berlin. Merkel badly wants the investment deal. And if this is what it costs to get Berlin to Europeanize relations to Beijing and set a shining example of a “sovereign EU” independent from the US, so be it. In any case, the European Parliament will have the last word on the deal.
Macron, the Realist
The era of French presidents like Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac explicitly welcoming China’s rise hoping it would lead to a more multipolar world order are over. Macron doesn’t want “Les Chinois à Paris” nor does he want them in New Caledonia. Like Washington, Paris thinks in strategic terms and wants to set limits to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and strategic encroachment in Europe.
But notably, the Élysée is careful not to join Washington’s anti-China front either. Paris wants to confront China with a focus on upholding the multilateral order rather than engaging in great power competition.
And yes, Paris has become Beijing’s most assertive partner within the EU, but Macron doesn’t think it is helpful to step on Xi’s toes when there is not much to gain. Since the beginning of his presidency, realist Macron has deprioritized human rights issues in foreign relations. Hence, the silence over Hong Kong and the crackdown on the Muslim Uighur minority. Instead, Macron says things like “I have the greatest respect for President Xi Jinping, and I expect no less on his behalf.” This is ultimately what Macron’s coalition building is about: make Beijing respect France.
An earlier version of this column, headlined “Macron’s Entente Cordiales Against China”, appeared in the Berlin Policy Journal.
Joseph de Weck is a journalist and historian based in Paris. He consults on geopolitical and macroeconomic risk and writes the monthly Pariscope column for INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.