Macron’s Charm Offensive Comes Up Short During Xi’s Visit to France 

This week, Xi Jinping made his first visit to Europe in five years. The first stop on his three-country tour was France, followed by Serbia and Hungary. Xi last met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Beijing last April, for a visit that many believe reinforced Franco-Chinese ties at the expense of European unity. Since then, the European Union has, with backing from Paris, taken a slightly tougher stance on China, complicating France-China relations. Le Monde’s Simon Leplâtre concluded that this week’s visit failed to dispel the lingering tensions

On the second day of Xi Jinping’s state visit to France, the Chinese and French presidents took off their ties, a sign of détente between the leaders. The Elysée Palace wanted to create a more personal program, after a very official first day in Paris on Monday, May 6. It was an opportunity to discuss important issues without an army of advisors, and to soften the stance of the president of the world’s second-largest power, France hoped. China hoped that the trip would demonstrate that their president is warmly received around the world. But when they reached the Tourmalet pass in southwestern France, a thick blizzard greeted the two heads of state: The hoped-for photo op did not materialize.

It was emblematic of the entire state visit, which failed to clear up the ominous clouds hanging over the bilateral relationship. [Source]

The competitive power dynamic between the two leaders was a central feature of the French press coverage. A headline from Les Echos read: “Xi Jinping in France for a Low-key Showdown with Emmanuel Macron.” (The headline’s phrase “bras de fer” can be translated as “showdown,” but it literally means to “arm wrestle.”) A La Croix editorial headline read: “Xi Jinping’s Visit: Commanding Respect.” A Libération headline read: “In Paris, Macron and Xi Pretend to Converge.” François Godement from the Paris-based Institute Montaigne summarized Macron’s attempt at “rebalancing” as “making the best of an unequal relationship.” Elizabeth Pineau, Bart Biesemans, and Ingrid Melander from Reuters described how in the end Xi’s visit offered few substantive gains for France and Europe:

Chinese President Xi Jinping left France on Tuesday after a two-day trip during which he offered no major concessions on trade or foreign policy, even as President Emmanuel Macron pressed him on market access and Ukraine.

[…] Macron pressed Xi throughout his visit to reduce the trade imbalance, with better access for European firms in China and fewer subsidies for Chinese exporters, and to weigh on Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine.

Xi said he would welcome more high-level talks on trade frictions but denied there was a Chinese “overcapacity problem”, casting doubts on what progress can be achieved.

“Xi was consistent in signalling goodwill to (his) French interlocutors but did not come with tangible concessions on the issues that matter the most,” said Mathieu Duchatel of the Institut Montaigne think-tank. [Source]

French media were skeptical of Macron’s methods. L’Express wrote: “Emmanuel Macron seems to be repeating the same mistake he made with Vladimir Putin in the past, relying excessively on his ability to influence an autocrat through his personal power of conviction.” French European Parliament member Raphael Glucksmann concurred in Le Monde and on France Inter: “It’s not by flattering tyrants that we demonstrate realism. […] It’s a narcissistic illusion to think that a charm offensive can deflect Xi Jinping’s course, and we’re making the same mistake with Xi Jinping as we did with Putin.” (In a recent article for Slate, Richard Arzt traced the history of how each French president handled visits from Chinese leaders.) Roger Cohen at The New York Times described Macron’s attempt at a personal touch, and its uneven track record:

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who believes that a personal touch is the key to diplomacy, lured President Xi Jinping of China to a 7,000-foot pass in the Pyrenees on Tuesday, expecting to show off the sweeping views that had stamped his childhood, but instead finding dense fog and wild snow flurries.

[…] Over two days of talks, Mr. Xi has smiled a lot but offered little, particularly on European requests that he help end the war in Ukraine. With a succession of leaders, including Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Donald J. Trump, the former American president, Mr. Macron has demonstrated his belief in his powers of seduction, only to be rebuffed or ignored.

French officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with diplomatic practice, said Mr. Macron had forged a unique, close relationship with Mr. Xi since they first met as presidents six years ago, offering him a conduit into the intimate thinking of the Chinese leader that no other Western power has.

[…] Others have a different view. “You can seduce voters,” Bertrand Badie, an expert on international relations at Sciences Po University in Paris, said, noting that Mr. Macron has done so more than once. “It’s harder to carry that over into the complexities of international relations,” even if a “new partnership with China” was a worthwhile goal. [Source]

Ukraine was one prominent item on the agenda. While Xi agreed to back Macron’s wish for an “Olympics truce,” Marc Julienne, a China specialist at the Paris-based think-tank IFRI, argued that this was “no real gain” for France since it is already in Beijing’s interest. He added, “Support for the French president’s proposal of a truce during the Olympic Games is coherent with China’s backing of a cease-fire, without any action in that direction,” he said. Valérie Niquet, a China specialist at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, told France’s La Croix, “The Chinese leader made no concessions on Ukraine. It would have been naive to think that Xi Jinping would fall into the arms of Emmanuel Macron in the Pyrenees and change his diplomacy vis-a-vis Russia just to please him.”

Economic security was another important discussion topic. For Euractiv, Laurent Geslin and Théo Bourgery-Gonse highlighted the French and European concern for fair competition:

On the economic front, Emmanuel Macron made clear the EU wanted “fair competition, in other words reciprocal, legitimate rules”, as trade tensions have never been so high between both economic superpowers.

Single market rules, he said, “will not be dictated by growing international tensions”.

Earlier that same day, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in trilateral talks with Xi and Macron in Paris, said Europe was ready “to make full use [of its] trade defence instruments if necessary”.

In September, for the first time ever, the European Commission opened an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric cars. A second investigation into China’s photovoltaic industry has also just started, while a probe into the country’s procurement of medical devices was initiated under a parallel Commission programme.

China, in retaliation, opened its own investigation into French Cognac liquor in January. According to Macron’s remarks at the press conference, Xi had heard France’s “wish” not to apply provisional trade sanctions on Cognac imports into China. [Source]

Before his arrival, Xi published an exclusive op-ed in France’s Le Figaro. What was not mentioned was that two weeks earlier, Le Figaro’s deputy general manager had met with the president of Xinhua in Beijing and agreed to strengthen cooperation between the two news outlets. During Xi’s visit in France, Le Figaro provided at least three additional full-page advertorial placements of articles from Xinhua, People’s Daily, and China Daily, promoting tourism in China and “Franco-Chinese friendship.” By the end of Xi’s visit, China Media Group had managed to “become a major partner” of the Sunny Side of the Doc, the annual festival of the international documentary market held in La Rochelle, in order to “encourage co-productions.” 

In another example of curated Chinese narratives around Xi’s visit, Chinese citizens bearing large Chinese flags lined a road that Xi took to his reunion with Macron in the Pyrenees, but one video showed a Chinese man in a suit giving them instructions through a megaphone before Xi’s arrival. The CCTV broadcast of Xi’s visit included numerous clips of these “spontaneous” crowds.

Xi’s visit attracted a sizable number of protests against China’s human rights record. Thousands of Tibetans rallied at Place de la Republique to protest Xi’s arrival. Members of the Tibetan community in France urged Macron to raise the issue of human rights abuses against Tibetans and Uyghurs in China. Activists from Students for a Free Tibet held banners by l’Arc de Triomphe that read, “Europe, say no to Xi’s genocide.” The group also unfurled a massive protest banner on an overpass above Xi’s motorcade as he arrived in Paris:

According to l’Elysée, Macron privately raised the issue of human rights and mentioned some individual cases. But “these things need to be stated publicly,” said Jean-Claude Samouiller, president of Amnesty International France, who criticized the “lack of firmness in [Macron’s] declarations on human rights.” Insufficient resolve in this regard has allowed for transnational repression. Just before Xi’s arrival, broadcaster France 2 published a segment titled “Is China Policing France?” that showed videos of Chinese authorities in France allegedly attempting to forcibly return a Chinese dissident in France back to China. During Xi’s visit, photos circulated on social media of a group of Chinese men loitering between a black car and the entrance to the apartment of Paris-based Gulbahar Jalilova, a Uyghur woman of Kazakh nationality, who in 2017 was arbitrarily detained for 16 months in Urumqi, where she faced gender-based violence and torture. In Le Monde, Dilnur Reyhan, a French national of Uyghur origin, criticized Macron for his “policy of complicity in the Uyghur genocide”:

The Uyghur cause does not deserve such contempt. Yet it concerns France, which has many ties with China. It concerns the Uyghurs living in France, many of whom are also French. As French citizens or Uyghurs in France, we are not only psychologically and sometimes physically devastated by the genocide, but we also live under threat, intimidation and insecurity. In France, China benefits from many, very powerful relays.

Our executioner being welcomed with all the honors of a state visit only reinforces the sense of injustice, powerlessness and insecurity felt by the Uyghur diaspora in France. The message being conveyed is that the lives of the Uyghur people pale into insignificance in the face of billions of Chinese yuan. This policy of contempt is also a policy of complicity, as economic cooperation with China reinforces Chinese racial capitalism, which resorts to forced labor. [Source]

While Xi was in France, reporters from French broadcaster TF1 tried to investigate the transformation of a Uyghur mausoleum in a desert in Xinjiang, but were ambushed by a dozen men in plainclothes who physically prevented them from recording. Aleksandra Bielakowska, head of advocacy for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), wrote in Libération about how she became an “enemy of the state” in China and Hong Kong for trying to attend the national security trial of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai. Drawing attention to China’s repression of journalists and censorship, RSF organized a protest near the Arc de Triomphe, as described in a press release:

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is currently the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, with at least 119 people detained, including 10 in Hong Kong, and its regime is conducting a campaign of repression against journalism, and the right to information. A democracy like France should not welcome a  representative of such a draconian regime without addressing press and journalistic freedoms.

[…] The police quickly intervened to stop RSF’s operation in Paris and ordered the truck driver to turn off the screen displaying the names of the detained Chinese journalists. The police officers also went to the truck company’s headquarters to look for the vehicle, in a move that could be seen as an intimidation attempt. [Source]


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