The French Policy toward China in Chinese eyes
From the Center for China-Europe Relations of Fudan University and the Shanghai Institute for European Studies
French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are visiting China. Yesterday, we shared the EU parts of the 欧洲对华政策报告 2022 "Europe's China Policies in 2022" report, published by the Center for China-Europe Relations of Fudan University and the Shanghai Institute for European Studies in February 2023.
Today’s newsletter is the part on French policy towards China. Again, I thank Dr. 简军波 Jian Junbao, Deputy Director of Center for China-Europe Relations of Fudan University, for allowing the translation and publication here.
2022 French Policy Towards China
by XUE Sheng, Department of French, Shanghai International Studies University; also Research Fellow at the French and Francophone Countries Research Center, Regional Country Studies Institute, Shanghai International Studies University and ZHANG Ji, Professor and Vice Dean of the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University; Deputy Director of the Fudan University Center for French Studies.
In 2022, the French presidential and parliamentary elections have become the central issues in French politics, and the domestic political landscape continues to evolve. External factors such as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the United States' practice of "America First" while claiming to embrace multilateralism have had a significant impact on France's domestic and foreign policies. Under the influence of these internal and external factors, the importance of France's China policy in its diplomacy has been downplayed. In terms of its policy towards China, the Macron administrationt has continued its pursuit of "strategic autonomy" in the context of the strategic competition between China and the United States and maintained a "dual-track approach" in economic and ideological aspects.
I.Domestic and International Context
Domestically, the Macron government is facing increasing pressure. Although Macron was re-elected as president in the 2022 presidential election after a second-round run-off against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, his party, La République En Marche! (now renamed Renewal), failed to secure a majority in the National Assembly in the parliamentary elections. While the opposition parties failed to form a majority with Renewal due to their fragmentation, Macron is still facing difficulties tantamout to a “lame duck.” Although his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, expressed the intent to build an "action majority" in the National Assembly by uniting different political parties on different issues, the traditional left-wing Socialist Party, far-left Unbowed France, Greens, and French Communist Party have formed a "New Union for People and the Environment" (Nupes) in the parliament, along with the far-right National Front, in opposition to Macron's policies.
The Republican Party, which Macron had hoped to ally with, failed to unite with Macron's "La République En Marche" party in parliament because they wanted to showcase their own political agenda.
Thus, Macron is increasingly facing pressure from the opposition, particularly in light of his decision to invoke Article 49-3 of the Constitution to pass controversial pension reforms.
From an economic perspective, it can be observed that France’s inflation rate and economic data, in comparison to other Eurozone countries, has been less impacted by the energy crisis that has emerged as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This can be attributed to the country's well-established energy strategy that extends from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and North Africa, as well as its dominant position in the nuclear energy sector. However, despite these advantages, the latest forecasts from the French central bank indicate that the country's economic future remains challenging. The central bank has revised its economic projections downward three times within the span of a year, indicating a lack of optimism regarding the domestic economy.
At the EU level, the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the resulting energy and food crises have exposed France's lack of leadership in guiding the EU in the post-Merkel era. Different attitudes on security among Eastern and Western European countries towards the conflict have caused growing divergences, particularly in terms of security demands. France's recent decision to break its "strategic ambiguity" towards “Russian nuclear threat” has led to an increasing reliance by Eastern Europe on NATO for security. This conflict will continue until the Russia-Ukraine conflict is resolved.
The evolution of EU politics has seen a transition from the traditional "German-Franco axis" towards the "Franco-German axis." At the same time, there are growing disagreements between France and Germany on various levels, leading to further division. The formation of the new coalition government in Germany has resulted in a continued compromise in its foreign policy, while France's inability to lead “strategic autonomy” has led to the escalation of contradictions between the two nations. Despite the temporary suspension of energy, weapons and aids conflicts following the implementation of the US's "Inflation Reduction Bill," there still remain underlying tensions that threaten to undermine Macron's ambition of leading and leveraging the EU towards achieving "strategic autonomy."
In global politics, France has joined the ranks of those imposing sanctions on Russia due to the Ukraine conflict but continues to play the role of mediator. Therefore, Macron has maintained contact with Putin since the outbreak of the conflict. To ensure that France can cope with the energy crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and even lead the EU out of the crisis, as well as to secure its energy strategy from the Mediterranean, he has been continuously adjusting France's policy towards Africa, attempting to create a new narrative for France-Africa relations through measures such as withdrawing troops from the Sahel region, acknowledging colonial history, and establishing a commission to review historical issues, in order to regain France's influence in Africa and build "equal partnerships."
As the most influential foreign relationship impacting France's foreign policy, France-US relations have continued to deteriorate following the AUKUS fallout. In the face of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, France and the US have shown differing interests and attitudes towards taking a firm "anti-Russia" stance. At the trade level, France's dissatisfaction with America's protectionist and "America First" policies, despite claiming to support multilateralism, has been increasing. Disagreements on trade protectionism between France and the US have become increasingly severe, especially after the publication of the "Inflation Reduction Bill." Significant contradictions have also arisen between France and the US in the global governance field, such as the Iran nuclear deal, Middle East military presence, and the situation on the Korean peninsula, due to differing interests and demands.
II. Continuity and Adjustments
As the domestic and international situations continue to evolve, France's foreign policy in 2022 has undergone significant adjustments. In particular, after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the importance of bilateral relations with the United States and Russia has continued to rise, becoming a focus of French diplomacy in 2022, which has to some extent led to a decrease in attention to China policy. However, China and France have still maintained multi-level and high-frequency exchanges, with the leaders of both countries engaging in face-to-face exchanges on several occasions, including at the G20 summit, and five other exchanges via telephone or video conference to discuss bilateral relations and international affairs. [Then] State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also maintained high-frequency online exchanges with the French Foreign Minister and the President's foreign affairs advisor. China and France also maintain close ties in cultural exchanges and third-party cooperation, with events such as the "Classical Voices" Paris China Cultural Center's 20th anniversary celebration concert, the "Fourth Sino-French High School Student Mathematics Exchange Activity," "Beauty and Harmony - China-France Cultural Exchange Activity," and "Studying in China, Promoting Mutual Learning between Civilizations" reception held grandly in France. Activities such as the China-France Non-Tripartite Higher Education Forum and the China-Europe-Africa Green Energy Development Forum have also been carried out online and offline simultaneously. Economic and trade cooperation between China and France has also maintained a high level of development.
Following the breakthrough of bilateral trade between China and France exceeding$80 billion in 2021, cooperation between China and France continued to be stable and improved in 2022, with bilateral trade further increasing and the development of industrial and consumer trade being remarkable. Mutual recognition and trust in the consumer markets have led to rapid growth in agricultural trade. China and France have complementary advantages, and there is great potential for cooperation in developing third-party markets. China has become France's seventh-largest importing country (with France occupying 1.4% of the Chinese market share) and the second-largest exporting country (with China occupying 9% of the French market share). Economic and trade relations have become a stabilizing "ballast" in bilateral relations, further highlighting their importance.
While economic and trade relations continue to grow, there are also some differences between China and France on certain issues. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has become an important area of disagreement between China and France.
Firstly, since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, France has been hoping for unified attitudes towards Russia within the EU while also hoping that China can support the EU's stance towards Russia, "not to support Russia, or at least not to undermine the Western sanctions against Russia." China has maintained an independent and impartial stance on the issue, emphasizing its support for Ukraine in maintaining territorial sovereignty and integrity while firmly stressing the need to take into account Russia's legitimate security concerns. The French side has not fully understood China's positions on certain issues, such as the statement that "there is no limit to China-Russia cooperation," which has caused concerns among EU countries, including France, about an alliance between China and Russia.
Secondly, in the "post-Merkel era," Macron has demonstrated his ambition to play the role of "EU leader." Coordination of unified attitudes within the EU has become the top priority of his EU policy. Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the EU has designated China and Russia as opposing forces at the ideological level, i.e., "authoritarian systems." Although Macron is more friendly towards China in his attitude, he cannot act independently within the EU's discourse system.
Thirdly, whether in France or at the EU level, compromise has become a necessity and inevitability due to the lack of leadership from Macron-led government.
Consequently, France’s China policy has become a sacrificial lamb in the compromise process.
The influence of the United States remains one of the most important factors affecting Sino-French relations. Despite significant differences between France and the United States in terms of trade and foreign policy, the United States exerts significant influence on European countries, including France, based on the "Transatlantic Partnership" and the "Values Alliance," as well as the military alliance of NATO. Within the European Union, the "pro-American" stance of EU Commission President von der Leyen and other members of the European Parliament further enhances the United States' influence within the EU. The US factor has become a factor that France is trying to avoid but cannot escape in its foreign policy. As a result, France, despite trying to avoid "taking sides" in the US-China strategic game, is forced to take a pro-US stance on the ideological level, while attempting to enhance economic and trade relations with China.
In addition, China's domestic policies and France's own interests are also important factors influencing French policy towards China. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, French public opinion has not been able to understand and even openly defamed China's anti-epidemic policies, which has had a negative impact on the normal development of Sino-French relations.
At the same time, the prolonged pandemic has also created difficulties for Sino-French relations, especially in terms of economic and trade relations, due to the need to ensure the security and stability of supply chains, particularly after the Russia-Ukraine conflict. China was accused by the United States and the West of being an accomplice with Russia, which could lead to possible sanctions spillover. In response, France has chosen to diversify its supply chains to avoid excessive dependence on China in its foreign policy.
From the perspective of France's own interests, in the event of possible supply chain disruptions, apart from the "diversification" of supply chains, the demand for "re-industrialization" in France, which reflects its desire to lead the EU's "strategic autonomy," has been increasing.
This has resulted in two consequences. On the one hand, in the field of new energy, France is attempting to establish a leadership position in the green energy sector by achieving self-sufficiency in the raw materials sector through measures such as the establishment of the first lithium mine. On the other hand, after then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, France wants to avoid the impact of the tense situation in the Taiwan Strait and the possible negative influence of "reunification by force" on France's domestic chip supply chain. While repeatedly emphasizing its support of the "One China" position, France advocates maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait and opposes the use of force to resolve the Taiwan Question in official documents, including the "2022 National Security Review."
The so-called "democracy card" played by the Taiwan region has also gained significant support from France at the ideological level.
In 2023, opportunities and challenges coexist in Sino-French relations. Macron is expected to visit China in early 2023, during which he will put forward French demands in areas such as trade, environmental protection, financial stability, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Korean Peninsula situation, and the Iran nuclear deal, hoping to gain more support from China. There is still room for further cooperation between China and France in fields such as trade, environmental protection, and finance.
While the possibility of French policy adjustments toward the US prevents the France from taking the side of the U.S. between China and the U.S., it is likely that France will continue its dualistic approach in its policy toward China. Specifically, France hopes to deepen cooperation with China in trade and investment, in order to promote its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and to solidify its strong economic foundation for realizing "strategic autonomy" and leading the the EU. However, politically, it will not be easy to completely set aside controversies in the current EU and French public opinion.
In the field of global governance, France hopes to conduct more pragmatic cooperation with China, as China plays an increasingly important role in global affairs. Despite ongoing concerns about China's growing influence in France, cooperation with China is essential for France to exert its soft power in global governance. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and France can seek to find common ground for cooperation. France will seek to strike a balance between so-called "restraining" China's global behavior and conducting comprehensive cooperation with China.
In the field of cultural exchange, there is still considerable room for cooperation between China and France. In 2024, China and France will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, and the French side will use various events such as the "China-France Year of Tourism" to create a favorable cultural atmosphere for the anniversary. With the adjustment of China's epidemic prevention and control policies, the gradual restoration of personnel exchanges between China and France, especially the resumption of Chinese tourism to France, will provide new opportunities for improving the atmosphere between the two peoples. (Enditem)