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Macron and China: The Perils of Equivalence

Macron and China: The Perils of Equivalence
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

François Godement alerts on the perils of the "at the same time" strategy pursued by Emmanuel Macron when meeting Xi Jinping in Beijing. By openly criticising the United States and claiming Europe's non-intervention in Taiwan, the French president is undermining both Europe's efforts to assert itself and the cohesion of the Western world against Chinese authoritarianism.

Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to China ended with a public relations debacle, except of course for Beijing, which couldn’t be more delighted by the French president’s remarks to journalists during an interview on his flight home. Making matters worse, different versions of the in-flight interview ended up circulating in the press. Did the French president refer to Europe as a "third pole", a "third power" or "Europe puissance" (European power)? Was he blaming America’s "rhythm", America’s "agenda", or America’s "action" for causing a "Chinese overreaction"? Whatever the case may be, it’s time to draw some conclusions, not just from this interview but also from Macron’s earlier expression while on Chinese soil, and from a fifty-one point Sino-French Joint Statement issued at the end of the visit.

First, there is the French president’s fatal attraction for "en même temps" (at the same time) rhetoric, and the visit’s political staging of yesteryear. To wit: massive business delegation even though Ukraine was slated to be the main topic of discussion. Long moments of casual "intimacy" with Xi Jinping over tea and Chinese music. Public appearances with throngs of adoring students whose enthusiasm appeared to be at a North Korean level. The Elysée seems stuck in a time warp, out of touch with contemporary expectations of public diplomatic. Yet "At the same time", it had been a wise move for France to call on European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in order to make a simultaneous visit, given Beijing’s reluctancy to genuinely engage the Commission on many issues, and the Chinese practice of splitting EU member states. Sadly, the gap between the European level and France finally appeared wider, with the personal musings of a president who quotes the Stoics to explain why he is staying away from the Taiwan issue, and Gramsci to claim that he has won "the ideological battle for European strategic autonomy", no less! The last will appeal to Xi and the CCP, who have long been adept at ideological manipulation of language and law.

Atavistic Pseudo-Realism from French tradition

Meanwhile, Ursula von der Leyen had the strength to reiterate that Europe opposes any attempt to change the status quo by force in the Taiwan Strait. Each and every comment on Taiwan made by the president was directed at Washington, not Beijing: the United States is the one taking action, China is merely "hyperreacting", in ways that were never described. This after a decade of Xi Jinping’s direct military pressure on Taiwan and demonization of its president who has not once lost her cool or sense of caution. The president’s criticism went farther, denouncing American "sanctions" and the "extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar", which have so far proven to be the best substitutes for direct conflict, whether with Iran, Russia or potentially China. He proclaims in advance that he will do nothing about Taiwan, calling others "immaculate souls". While rooted in one of the French traditions, such pseudo-realism is hard to reconcile with the idea of Europe puissance.

An even worse symbol could be point 51 of the Joint Statement in which the two heads of state underscore the importance of "promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms". Here we are no longer among the Stoics, but at the school of cynicism.
No sooner did Macron leave Chinese airspace than China launched military intimidation exercises around Taiwan, simulating a potential blockade of the island. And just days later, two Chinese human rights lawyers, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, were sentenced to 12 and 14 years in jail.

In both cases, France seemed to have opened the door. If the president is so adamant about avoiding a conflict—which would indeed be catastrophic—should he really be handing out a blank check to China, criticizing the United States on his way home, and posing as the leader of a "neither-nor" Europe? Should he be promoting the “third way” that some may have been itching to pursue ever since the conclusion of AUKUS and the loss of the Australian submarine contract? To deter China from engaging in a fight over Taiwan, isn't it first necessary to make Xi Jinping understand that there would be a joint political reaction from major democracies – a term that the president seems to find taboo – instead of implying that Europe would remain on the sidelines? How could the president justify the notion that it is the United States which promotes a conflict in East Asia?

Let's move on to another contradiction. On the flight back to Paris, the president claims to have been "the only one", five years ago, to mention the dangers of too strong a foreign presence in telecommunications and to have effectively reduced this presence. But in point 17 of the Joint Statement, France is committing, in the digital economy and 5G, to "continue the fair and non-discriminatory processing of license applications submitted by Chinese companies". Some doublespeak here.

Chinese Propaganda Rejoices

We are getting to two essential points. Emmanuel Macron overuses "at the same time" rhetoric and seems to believe that he can lead Europe and make policy changes without harming our relationships with partners across Europe, America or even China. This is all the more striking since one version of his interview depicts a president who is lucid about "our" limits, whether those limits are French or European. The Elysée is also implying that Macron was more critical of Xi Jinping in private discussions. But whether it be on Ukraine or on Taiwan, Xi Jinping has publicly rejected any deviation from his established policies. And China unleashed its propaganda machine against Ursula von der Leyen, an American agent, all the while celebrating what is in effect a neo-Gaullist and sovereignist revival of a France that is actually isolated.

The second point is the silence of the French political class (aside from the small French Communist Party’s Fabien Roussel who has loudly criticized the trip!). This highlights the growing atrophy of the foreign policy debate in France. The accumulation of domestic crises, our growing dependencies, a political landscape dominated by resentment and phobias, and often xenophobia, the political appeal of non-intervention and isolationism are having a negative impact on French society and politics. The two political extremes would undoubtedly do and say much worse than Mr. Macron. In addition, while Beijing is predicting the impending American "decline", we actually tremble at the advances of the new American economy.   

Naturally, the head of state will shift language. We have seen it before, and it would be surprising if China did not pick up on this. After all, Ursula von der Leyen was finally also able to meet Xi Jinping one-on-one. Still, the French president's visit has been a major diplomatic win for China. Beijing won’t stop there. It will be crucial to monitor how China leverages this breakthrough to achieve its goal of European neutrality, conveniently sheltered behind the pursuit of strategic autonomy. Or if the European Union – where the French president prefers to quote the Council rather than the Commission – manages to establish a course of action that is free from these blunders. 


With the kind contribution of l'Express, published on 11/04/2023

Copyright Image: Thibault Camus / POOL / AFP

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a tea ceremony at the Guangzhou provincial governor's residence in Guangzhou on April 7, 2023.

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