France 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; 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, for two reasons: the geopolitical and the economic.
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 French submarines patrol around New Caledonia’s coast.
And of course, Macron hopes that establishing France as an “Indo-Pacific power” will yield some further benefits: increased geopolitical importance for France and a rebalancing of Beijing’s European focus from Berlin to Paris. Arms sales in a region that is diversifying away from US suppliers is another 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.
When it comes to the economy, Paris—unlike Berlin—has seen China’s rise as more of a threat than an opportunity for some time. 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 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.”
Macron thus supports Merkel’s initiative for an investment deal with China. But he doesn’t want to settle for small change. He wants an “ambitious agreement” that provides “full reciprocity.” And he wants to set the right incentives. It was Macron who initiated the idea of an EU-wide foreign investment screening mechanism, which was adopted in 2019. Today, Paris wants to strengthen the EU’s anti-subsidy measures in extra-European trade.
In this context, China 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.
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.
But notably, the Élysée is careful not to join Washington’s anti-China front either. Paris fears that a binary Sino-American competition could provoke a cascading conflict akin to the pre-World War I period. By organizing an alliance of secondary players that is willing to confront China, but with a focus on upholding the multilateral order rather than engaging in great power competition, Macron hopes to change the dynamic.
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. 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.