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Macron’s charm offensive with Xi won’t succeed

Emmanuel Macron has his work cut out. Credit: Getty

May 7, 2024 - 7:00am


Xi Jinping is being compared to an old-school Chinese emperor during his state visit to France. A despot in the mould of Mao Zedong, he rules his one-party Communist state of more than 1.4 billion people with ideological ruthlessness, showing little enthusiasm for compromise with anyone, least of all foreign counterparts.

Hence Emmanuel Macron, Xi’s host in Paris, having his work cut out as he tries to negotiate concessions over a range of contentious issues. The most pressing is the war in Ukraine, in which the Russians are said to be using weapons and battlefield technology supplied by China. Not only does the French President want to stop this, but he is calling on Xi to use his close ties with Vladimir Putin to bring a halt to the conflict altogether.

Xi literally called Putin his “best, most intimate friend” when, in 2018, the Russian President received China’s first ever Friendship Medal. The Chinese Premier said at the time: “No matter what fluctuations there are in the international situation, China and Russia have always firmly taken the development of relations as a priority.”

There has certainly been no significant criticism from Beijing of Russia’s conduct in Ukraine since, with Nato and EU encroachment into Eastern Europe instead being blamed for the bloodshed. It is worth comparing such unswerving loyalty with the ineffective way Macron tried to influence Putin in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Comical pictures of the French President sitting at the end of a huge table at the Kremlin, and Putin’s inscrutable stare, highlighted the vast gulf between the two men.

Macron’s attempted negotiation had also seen him invite Putin to the French Riviera in 2019, when he said: “The European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we don’t pacify and clarify our relations with Russia.” It all came to nothing, and — humiliated time and time again — Macron is now one of the most hawkish EU leaders as regards Ukraine, saying last week that he did not rule out sending French troops to fight the Russians there.

Such inconsistency will not impress Xi as Macron tries to buddy up to him in France. Beyond a red-carpet banquet at the ÉlysĂ©e Palace, the French leader will be escorting the Chinese Premier on a trip to the Pyrenees with their respective wives, to an area where Macron used to holiday as a boy.

It is the kind of very personal diplomacy that saw Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron invite Donald and Melania Trump for a meal up the Eiffel Tower during a state visit by the American president in 2017. Such optics undoubtedly generate a feel-good atmosphere, but they are by no means guaranteed to achieve anything.

Another major issue in Sino-EU relations right now is a growing trade dispute centred on China flooding the European market with cheap, subsidised goods including electric cars, while threatening huge tariffs on French imports, such as cognac. Macron frequently snaps at the Chinese for having as little respect for international trade laws as they do for the human rights of their persecuted communities such as the Uyghur Muslims — and indeed journalists, who are frequently locked up.

What the French President should have learnt from Xi by now, however, is that trying to mix such criticism with playful gestures is not much of a strategy. Macron has a Jupiterian reputation in France — he is happy to bypass parliament to rule by presidential decree, and is frequently accused of being arrogant and out-of-touch with ordinary people. But for Xi he is undoubtedly a good entry point for his first visit to Europe in five years. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will take part in talks in Paris but other key players, such as the Germans, will not.

After marking six decades of diplomatic relations between France and China, Xi will then head to Serbia and Hungary — two countries which are resolutely sympathetic to Russia. It is the kind of snub to the West for which Xi is renowned, and Macron’s despairing bonhomie will do nothing to make up for it.

Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.


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Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
15 days ago

Macron is an embarrassment; to himself, to France and to the EU. Xi will make the right noises, acheiving the impression of “friendship” whilst laughing up his sleeve. Von Der Leyen will smile and exude the platitudes of mittel-European flannery.

The gulf in power will act like a force-field around Xi. His purpose will be to reassure himself he has nothing to worry about from such lightweights, and probably further his own belief that the system of government that can produce such facile ‘leaders’ is bankrupt.

I think he’s wrong, at least in theory, but why we in the West allow ourselves to elect such poseurs is another matter entirely.

13 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

A useful and perceptive summary of the situation. I wonder how Macron will go with the tariffs on EVs from China? There are tens of thousands of $15-20,000 EVs sitting in China ready for shipping to the US and Europe with several hundred thousand to follow. Even with 20% tariffs, these cars will undercut all of the competition by some big margins.
I suppose that EU governments, the US and the UK, will smile on this massive import of EVs which will tick many of their boxes in the advance towards Nut Zero, regardless of the coal-fired power, and steel blast furnaces, which are required to build them?

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
15 days ago

“It all came to nothing, and — humiliated time and time again — Macron is now one of the most hawkish EU leaders as regards Ukraine, saying last week that he did not rule out sending French troops to fight the Russians there.”
It says it all .. Macron is a pipsqueak of a President ruled by the EU .. Xi is simply attemting to divide and rule .. it will all end in tears for Macron and the EU !

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
15 days ago

Massive tariffs on Chinese imports is what the west should be doing. China has frequently shown that it won’t play by the rules in regards to trade so why the west keeps rewarding them is an act of colossal stupidity.
Will it hurt to decouple from China? Absolutely it will, but it will cripple the Chinese much more if they lost access to their biggest export markets

M To the Tea
M To the Tea
14 days ago

The Chinese government does not adhere to Western norms because it seeks to avoid intervening in the internal politics of other countries, aiming to prevent these nations from interfering with the CCP business in return. The West often uses language/media as a tool of interference—thanks to the global prevalence of English, they can understand and influence the internal discussions of other countries, which is a challenge with the Chinese due to Chinese language/media barriers. Another major difference is western nations attempt to psychologically coerce other countries into submission but often not on their own people where in China is the other way around – the coercion is for domestic resistance. These approaches of wielding power are markedly different. Historically, the West succeeded in colonizing the Americas and Africa, which had less aggressive societies, but China is resistant to such forms of coercion/aggression now. It is checkmate! Additionally, cutting off China in trade could lead the West to a significant economic downturn; a scenario where the financial devastation of the 1930s would seem mild by comparison not to mention that by outsourcing machinery and manufacturing, we also outsourced how to improve and advance technology. We lost so much as average person but the elites were compensated wonderfully. They are the ones holding us back cause they would have pay for the unemployment and re-training resources.