May 17, 2022 - World

France navigates tricky China challenges

Photo illustration of Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Xie Huanchi/Xinhua, Daniel Pier/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Top French officials rarely lambast China publicly, but in recent years, France has come to see one of its most important economic partners as a competitor, a security concern and, in some cases, a threat.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is trying to build trans-Atlantic consensus on a more assertive agenda to counter Beijing's growing power. Paris, in some ways, doesn't need persuading.

What's happening: In the past few years, France has undergone a quiet but clear evolution in its views on China across industry, national security and popular opinion.

Industry and economy: The Chinese market once paid top dollar for the infrastructure, railway, high-speed trains, nuclear power and energy grids French companies could provide, said François Chimits, an analyst focusing on China and trade at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

  • Around the early to mid-2010s, however, "China was developing its own domestic competitors and also often closing those sectors to outside investment or trade," Chimits said.
  • As a result, "those French corporations were less eager to push the state for greater access to China and in some cases started pushing for protection."
  • This impacted French policy. "You have seen a change in the French position from changing China and getting more market access towards protecting itself and its companies from the Chinese economic distortions and Chinese competition," Chimits said.
  • On a 2018 trip to Beijing, Macron warned that "unbalanced" access to markets would lead to protectionism. In 2021, when he supported the now-suspended EU-China investment deal, he was attacked by both the French right and the left.

National security: In France, "China until a few years ago wasn’t considered any kind of security player," said Yixiang Xu, China fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

  • But then the Chinese military began an aggressive island-building campaign in the South China Sea and pushed Pacific Islands to cut ties with Taiwan and open their ports to Chinese navy vessels.
  • This directly impacted France. More than 1.5 million French citizens live in French territories in the Indo-Pacific, including Mayotte, La Réunion, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and 93% of France's economic exclusion zone — waters near a country's coast to which it has exclusive rights — are there as well.
  • In 2018 France became the first EU member to adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy, updating it in 2022 and committing to a "multilateral international order that is based on the rule of law" — a rejection of China's territorial claims there, which a Hague court ruled have little basis in international law.
  • "France is the only European Union power that is resident in the Indo-Pacific," Xu said. "China is expanding its security role in the region, and they feel this more acutely than any other country in the European Union."

Public opinion: French public opinion doesn't flatter China, a trend that worsened during COVID.

  • 62% of respondents in France said they had a very negative or negative view of China, a 2020 survey by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies found, coming in second only to North Korea in countries they viewed as unfavorable.
  • 83% of respondents in France said the Chinese government does not respect the rights of its people, a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found.
  • On the bright side: The 2020 survey found 45% of French people had a positive view of Chinese culture and only 28% had a negative view.

Yes, but: France has worked hard to maintain a working relationship with China, and Beijing for its part has cast its relationship with France as a relative bright spot in its increasingly strained ties with Western countries.

  • In a phone call with Emmanuel Macron after the French president's re-election in late April, Chinese President Xi Jinping praised France's "independence and autonomy," echoing China's previous support for European "strategic autonomy" from U.S. foreign policy.
  • In February, the two countries also announced joint plans to build seven infrastructure projects worth a total of $1.7 billion across Africa, Asia and Europe.

Between the lines: "France, as most European countries, has a tendency to keep only the most positive topics for bilateral discussions and push the negative ones through EU-China discussions," Chimits said.

  • That tendency contributes to the perception in the U.S. that Europe in general, and France in particular, is unwilling to challenge Beijing on difficult issues.
  • The French Embassy in D.C. did not respond to a request for comment.

The bottom line: Paris carefully balances multiple priorities in its relationship with Beijing.

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