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Behind the niceties of Chinese leader’s visit, France is wary

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France rolled out red carpets and honor guards for President Xi Jinping of China on Monday, but beneath the pomp, there were wary statements about China's influence by his host, President Emmanuel Macron.

[PARIS] France rolled out red carpets and honor guards for President Xi Jinping of China on Monday, but beneath the pomp, there were wary statements about China's influence by his host, President Emmanuel Macron.

With Italy last week breaking from Europe in signing on to China's global infrastructure project for moving Chinese goods, Macron has made it clear that a unified European response, in his view, is critical in dealing with the Chinese hegemony.

He reiterated that sentiment Monday as Xi listened in a deal-signing ceremony at the presidential Elysée palace, where more than a dozen commercial and governmental treaties were signed worth billions of euros.

Earlier Macron welcomed Xi at a symbol of French imperial history and power, the Arc de Triomphe.

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Beneath the tight smiles and brisk handshakes, Macron's sharpened words resonated as the template for France's attitude toward China, a country that floods France with luxury-shopping tourists but competes directly with it in a principal arena of mutual geopolitical interest, Africa.

Macron, keenly aware of France's small position in the Chinese market — between 1 and 2 per cent of imports — talks about Europe when he talks about China. Germany's position is nearly five times as large.

After saying last week that the era of European "naïveté was over," and that China had "played on our divisions," he emphasized to the Chinese leader Monday that in talking to France, he was talking to Europe.

It was not immediately clear how France had avoided the "naïveté" Macron criticized, nor how it had reinforced the multilateral unified European approach he promulgated, in signing the French deals with the Chinese on Monday.

Still, unlike Italy, France has not signed on to China's global goods-moving project, which it calls "One Belt One Road."

Making reference to Gen. Charles de Gaulle's famous declaration in 1964 that recognizing China was a matter of "reason" and "evidence," Macron said Monday at the Elysée that those same words applied to the "choice" of the 21st century: the "relationship between Europeans and Chinese."

De Gaulle was bucking the United States when he uttered those words, and Macron, 55 years later, was doing something of the same.

Appealing to China as a partner, he made a pointed reference to the United States under President Donald Trump, who has repudiated multinational agreements like the Paris Climate accord and Iran nuclear deal.

"The order of things has been shaken," the French president said, and "faced with the risk of the destruction of the multilateral order, France and China have a responsibility," as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

"No country can redefine the rules of the international game," Macron asserted, saying that France, like China, would stick to an agreement with Iran, and saying the two countries had made progress on the subject of climate change, and on the lifting of import restrictions for French beef and poultry.

Earlier French and Chinese officials and executives signed agreements on aeronautics — the Chinese are buying 300 airplanes from Airbus — and on space, banking and investment, shipbuilding and cultural exchanges.

On human rights violations in China, a subject that preoccupies French media but not official discourse or French business, Macron made only a hurried reference. Xi is visiting at a time when Galeries Lafayette, the emblematic French department store, is projecting a rapid expansion in China, which represents a third of the world market for luxury goods.

Jet-lagged Chinese tourists are bused directly from the airport to the Galeries Lafayette store in central Paris, and the Rue Saint Honoré, a thoroughfare studded with luxury shops, routinely decks itself out for Chinese New Year.

The Chinese have invested in a wide scattering of French sectors, including wine, hotels, and industrial food production, including milk. France was the recipient of 9 per cent of Chinese investments in the European Union in 2018; the Chinese have bought more than 150 wineries in Bordeaux, and China is the top export market for Bordeaux wine. The Chinese push into that culturally symbolic sector has created some backlash, but not enough to stop French owners from selling their properties.

With Xi silently listening Monday, Macron said that Europe had never considered individual rights as "culturally specific," and that its preoccupation remained for "the respect of fundamental and individual rights." He said that the two had "had frank exchanges" on the subject.

But French analysts of relations with China said Monday that commercial relations were the real subject of preoccupation. "It's the question of reciprocity," said Jean-Philippe Béja of Sciences-Po, the research university. "We've been open towards trade and investment, and the Chinese have never let us enter their state procurements process."

Europeans, he suggested, had also become more aware, and wary, of technology transfers and investments that "help the Chinese government develop its potential, and in the case of artificial intelligence it's about control, and exporting control," said Béja, referring to advances in Chinese government surveillance of its own citizenry.

"We're more fearful than the other" members of the European Union about Chinese power and hegemony, said François Godement, an expert at the Institut Montaigne research center in Paris. "China is pushing its own pawns," he said, particularly in parts of Africa where for decades French dominance has been undisputed.

Macron insisted Monday that France and China were "not strategic rivals" in Africa, though he said the two nations could be "much more important partners," appearing to reflect a worry about Chinese investment on the continent.

NYTimes