Macron’s trip to China this week was an unpredictable meeting of two great characters from different scripts: The Artist’s George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) meets Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). One man is all hyperactivity – a virtuoso rhetorician. The other is a nearly immobile rock with a perpetual half-smile, whose strength needs no display.
Xi has taken his political opponents, real or potential, to the cleaners, while Macron has broken the French political party game with charm. In different ways, they exemplify the rise of individual authority and personal aura over party politics.
As such, the two men should take an interest in each other’s career path, but while George Valentin has curiosity and interest for everybody, Tony Soprano has little need to take more than a passing interest in anybody.
Macron’s state visit to China has therefore been an interesting performance to follow. It has been a spectacular communication, both to Chinese leaders and to a European audience back home. But it also featured a French style ‘art of the deal’ in economic diplomacy, even if some results remain ambiguous.
With the UK government torn over Brexit, and Germany in between governments, it is Macron, with his 5-year mandate, his energy and skill, who is now fronting for Europe. China, meanwhile, is coming up against real obstacles in its soft conquest of Europe. Factor in the flexibility of many of Macron’s political stances, and you can see why China would want to woo him and create mutual interests with this new man.
Note, however, that most of the flattering remarks on Macron and France leading Europe were given by Chinese think tankers and through media mouthpieces. These are close enough to the source of power to be credible, but not so close that they can’t be denied later.
As for Macron’s tactics, he produced a nearly flawless public performance, something we must get used to again coming from France. First there was the tribute: visiting the Xian terracotta army site, expressing ‘humility’ in regard to the achievements of Chinese emperors, and the gift of a horse emulating (but were French officials aware of this?) the traditional offering from Mongolian herdsmen to the Chinese ruler.
In terms of current affairs, Macron also expressed a deep (although abstract) interest in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and praised China for its contribution to multilateral action on climate change (in contrast with you know who).
But it was not all deference from the French president. He argued that the Belt and Road “should run both ways” and avoid exploiting other countries. Chinese investment is welcome, he said, but with rules, within limits, and with ‘reciprocity’, which he referenced even more often than the European Union.
‘Europe is back’ and ‘should not be divided’ was another key message. In this sense Macron echoed Juncker’s ‘wind in ours sails’ address and Sigmar Gabriel’s statement that there is ‘One Europe’ just as there is ‘One China’ – which, of course, had irritated official China.
That being said, the visit was also about the art of the deal. But for us to gauge the results of Macron’s economic diplomacy, we mostly have to rely on his words. The two main deals -selling 187 Airbus 320s to China and transferring the technology for France’s open nuclear waste retreatment – have yet to be confirmed by final contracts.
Had the president himself not assured us that these two deals are securely in the pipeline, comments might well have been made that he returned almost empty handed. The other deals which have actually been finalized are much less high profile, although securing a commitment for the lifting of barriers to French beef exports to China is not insignificant: China has been dangling the resolution of this issue in front of many European exporting countries.
Perhaps the most interesting signed deal is that which sets up cooperation between Dassault, a French global leader in 3D design, with China’s aerospace industry. That, in fact, is a major technology transfer that might well have come under the label of ‘critical technologies’ which the European Union seeks to better monitor and ultimately control…
China and Xi Jinping were given a lot of face during the visit. On one issue, Macron clearly overstepped the line between pragmatism and cynicism. The final item of the joint Macron-Xi communiqué stresses both countries’ commitment to the protection of human rights and essential liberties, essentially letting China off the hook for its massive domestic repression of said liberties. This will inevitably lead to protests of double standards when France (and, indeed, Europe) speak out against human rights violations by less powerful authoritarian leaders.
In this one instance, the artist slipped up. And the bear – one of Xi’s nicknames in China, though it is banned – was certainly watching. Macron held his ground on key economic issues, especially on reciprocity. But he gave up on a key European value in this one instance. A genuine result from behind the scenes diplomacy would be the only way to deny this. But what’s given is given. And Macron will remain under watch as his predecessors were. Those delayed signature contracts are there as a reminder of who holds the strongest cards in this game of thrones.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.