Memo on President Macron’s visit to PRC, April 2023


     It is essential to first look at the background of PRC-France relations since 1964 as a few keywords are important to remember, as well as critical steps.

France recognized PRC in 1964 under General de Gaulle’s helm and referenced China’s existence as « older than History. » The explanation was the « weight of reason, which is every day heavier. »

Every single French President always refers to this initial declaration made on January 8th, 1964, in a press conference followed by the official recognition later that month. However, most comments forego careful listening to General De Gaulle’s declaration, which explicitly respects Marshall Chiang Kai-shek and refers to the sudden withdrawal of US aid to Kuo Min Tang (KMT)during the civil war. In his own words, this military defeat has led the Marshall (to whom he then expected China would eventually acknowledges his dues …) to retreat to Taiwan. The proper words of General De Gaulle in 1964 describe China as a « totalitarian regime. »

French presidents pride themselves on ruling the country, which was the first one to recognize the PRC, which is not totally true, since the UK did the same in 1960 but kept representative offices on both sides of the Straits for some time. Scandinavian

Since 2004, PRC-France relations have been ruled under a « global strategic partnership. »

A vital turnaround in the relationship was the joint declaration of January 1994, which ended France’s de facto shunning of China after the Tian An Men incident. This reinstated various aspects of cooperation but did not end the arms embargo, which is still enforced but was, in a sense, contradicted by the sales of frigates and jetfighters to Taiwan in 1992. In contrast, the principle of « one China » had not then been challenged by the French government.

Jacques Chirac became President shortly after and placed himself in the footsteps of General De Gaulle after he succeeded François Mitterrand. Nicolas Sarkozy had a more « down to Earth » approach, mixing an attempt to deal with China on a « peer-to-peer » approach, and did not gain much credit from Chinese counterparts. Hollande’s policy vis-a-vis China was not really relevant, as he did visit three times but did not leave many memories, apart from trying to engage China in the environment talks (Paris Conference, 2015), and pretended to have succeeded in this field thanks to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius.

At the beginning of his first mandate, Emmanuel Macron had promised to visit China « every year. » This was in order to:

- match German policy, where Chancellor’s visit China annually, mostly to protect trade interests. This enables German leaders to be able to mention human rights without being really « harmed » by such mentions

- try and protect French economic interests, since France has run a systematic trade deficit with China (around 40 to 60 bn Euro annually, the biggest for France compared to French trade with other partners).

The pandemics obviously impeached the yearly visits. The last time before this recent trip Macron had met with XJP was together with the Head of Europe, Juncker, and German Chancellor, Merkel, in Paris in early 2019, after two trips to China by Emmanuel Macron.

The trip in April 2023 was then carefully prepared, and many exchanges took place with think tankers and European partners:

- one has to remember that European Commission still defines China as a trade partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival (referring to the political model) and that the cross-agreement on investments (CAI), which was about to be launched in early 2021 (protocol finally signed in December 2020 when Germany was running the rotating presidency of European Union) was « suspended » after China took sanctions against some European think-tankers who were vocal about human rights in China and especially Xinjiang.

- Macron did not intend to visit China too early, as opposed to what Chancellor Scholz did, which happened before the meeting of the National Assembly. He then waited until after the Assembly

- he also tried all efforts to make it a « European trip » by associating with the Head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden. This trip also came after the Head of the European Council, Charles Michels, took the decision alone to come to China right after the National Assembly

- The invitation to UvdL had to come from China, which it did.

Before coming to China, UvdL delivered a speech in Brussels, where she paid high respect to entities under sanctions by China after the suspension of CAI (see above), namely MERICS, a German think-tank based in Berlin (and with which Asia Centre has a close relationship)

- although there could have been signs of marginal dissent between UvdL and Macron, they initially seemed to be on a similar, somewhat « realistic » and « hardliner » approach vis-a-vis China. The idea initially was not to « reset » but rather to « resume » and gradually express to Chinese leaders’ expectations and find a way to defend French business interests. Macron never used the word « de-risk » (Ursula’s and most business people in Europe, except German ones) China (meaning diluting exposure to China as compared to other areas in the world. Still, he was apparently aware that our interests were at risk, lest something could be expressed to the Chinese leaders.

- the press briefing by the Elysee Palace before the trip still displayed an intention by Macron to remain as «firm» as possible. However, it was clearly mentioned that France would raise no sensitive issue unless it would come to the table (namely human rights and Taiwan).

Gradually, things have changed and I hereby propose some explanations.

The status of the two leaders was supposed to show unity within Europe in Macron’s intentions.

However, only one day was supposed to be devoted to joint meetings with the three parties attending (France, EU, and China).

Macron started his visit by meeting with the French community in China, which had been suffering a lot during the COVID times, and he intended to comfort them while possibly trying to prompt interest in posting French expatriates to China again (as they currently resent more and more).

Also, he came along with a significant business representation from top corporates and smaller ones.

He also had a meeting with the « French China business committee, » where the vital interests of China business by French leaders were represented. This might be one of the «turning point » in the visit, as the business community (mostly Total, BNP Paribas, and L’Oreal) have it more accessible to ask the President to adopt a milder tone in order not to jeopardize their interests than trying to confront China and /or helping the French corporates to « de-risk. » The «easier slope, » in a sense.

Another critical point is that UvdL was meeting with the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, the Head of which, Joerg Wuttke, is increasingly hostile to the business ambiance in China.

This possibly also made Chinese leaders even angrier than they already were, and they gradually lowered the status of UvdL’s trip. Possibly Macron was not unhappy that he would not only look as leading the initiative of a « joint visit » by an EU leader and a French leader together but also showing that France had the upper hand. China also was increasingly taking the excuse that UvdL was only « number 2 » in the EU hierarchy and then gradually downgraded her status, apparently not allowing her to travel in the same car as the French President and not even enjoying a privileged status while exiting China eventually.

Finally, the explanation of Macron’s words on the plane about Taiwan has to take into account several factors:

- those were « off the record, » so possibly some journalists only kept what looked more « interesting » for them and distorted Macron’s word

- possibly also, he did not manage too well what he said and was too loose in his expression

- finally, one cannot exclude that he could see a direct benefit in showing more and more complacency to China, pretending to disconnect his policy from the US. Still, compared to the supposed « Gaullist » stance, there are many differences, including vis-a-vis Taiwan (see above), and just because France no longer enjoys the same industrial and economic status as it used to during De Gaulle’s times. Also, Macron mentioned that, in order to assume « strategic autonomy, » France still needed, together with Europe, some more years, showing by such words that he did not totally appreciate the emergency under which the Taiwan crisis puts every Western leader in the world.

Conclusion: The situation is now challenging to fix. European opinions now will be difficult to convince that Macron’s « faux pas » was just either a blunder or a slip of tongue. Meanwhile China will capitalize on the new « friendship » for a while and can make France a « hostage » of its « divide and rule » policy vis-a-vis the West. On top of this, there is a risk that the new dependency that France has established, without understanding that the Chinese vision of a « multipolar » world is not the same as the one France could entertain, could put France at risk of being « blackmailed » by China if Macron marginally reneges on some commitments he gave to China during and after the trip.

One must remember that Macron’s motto is « at the same time, » as he believes the world order should not be « black and white, » just as French politics should not be divided between left wing and right wing. He has a vision for this, and this is very positive. Nevertheless, this vision should not prevent him from getting back to the « realistic, » « not-naive » (his own words ») China policy he initially intended to re-invent.

The good news is that many opinions in France, coming from every side of the society and the political spectrum, have now displayed sympathy towards Taiwan after such clumsy management of the situation. Hopefully, this is the silver lining.


Chairman Asia Centre Paris Jean-Francois Di Meglio(法國巴黎亞洲中心智庫會長 迪蒙柳)