Where Do France’s Presidential Candidates Stand on China?
People cosplaying as a Red Guard, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and former French President François Hollande in Paris (Picture Credit: Gwenael Piaser)
As the second-richest country in the EU and one of the two with a blue-water navy, France is in a unique position to shape European policy towards China and to help check its ambitions abroad. With the French presidential election in April, the question of where the candidates stand on China becomes increasingly important. This is especially so since French presidents are more powerful than their American counterparts: France is incredibly centralized, and its Parliament is elected a month after the president, which means the results are usually similar and a president usually faces little opposition in the legislature. The answer to this question, however, is difficult to discern because of one thing: French voters don’t care about China.
Or foreign policy in general, for that matter. Last month, French newspaper Les Echos published the results of a poll that asked voters which issues would determine their vote in the first round of the presidential election. Domestic and economic issues like purchasing power and welfare topped the list; foreign policy came in 13th. French voters see foreign affairs as a field that belongs less in partisan politics than in diplomatic expertise: a job for civil servants, not elected leaders. And even on a list of foreign policy issues, China ranks low. French people are much more likely to care about Russia or Islamist terrorism. Because France has limited its commercial exposure to China, Beijing has never been able to punish it for taking a stand against it the way it’s done with Australia. Thus, China has not featured heavily on the campaign trail, and is unlikely to in future.
This, of course, doesn’t mean the various candidates don’t have stances on China, but what stances they have can be quite difficult to discern.
As president, Emmanuel Macron’s stance is unsurprisingly the best-known. He is more averse towards China than any of his recent predecessors. In his time in office, Macron has initiated an Indo-Pacific strategy to check China and sent a frigate into the Taiwan Strait (in spite of Chinese ire). In 2019, Macron led EU leaders to famously declare that “The time of European naivete has ended […] for many years we had an uncoordinated approach and China took advantage of our divisions.” His administration is now rallying EU countries to resist Chinese economic coercion, especially against Lithuania, after the small Baltic state opened a trade office with Taiwan and withdrew from the China-led 17+1 forum. If re-elected, Macron is likely to continue his policy of resisting Chinese bullying.
But what about the others? Once a purely bipolar country oscillating between two major parties – one on the left and one on the right – France has seen its political landscape fracture over the last decade. Now, Emmanuel Macron’s ruling centrist, globalist, and liberal party La République En Marche! is pitted against a large number of parties ranging from far-left to far-right. None of these challengers have really stood out so far, however: less than three months before the election, polls are still showing steady support for the incumbent president (polls project him to win 25% of votes in the first round of voting, which is at least 10 points higher than any other candidate). And because the French president is elected in two rounds of voting, it’s unknown who Macron will face in the second round, where a contender may be able to harness enough support to oust him. According to polls, the candidates most likely to succeed at doing so are Valérie Pécresse and Marine Le Pen.
Pécresse is a member of Les Républicains (LR), the latest incarnation of the moderate-right, and in polls is credited at around 15% of votes. She won the primaries held in early December (not every party in France holds primaries), although she was initially seen as a lightweight compared with candidates boasting much more experience. But now, the entire LR party rallies behind her, and for good reason: as soon as she was announced as LR’s champion, polls indicated she is the only candidate who can beat Macron in the second round.
Pécresse’s position on China is difficult to determine. Her manifesto for the primary elections did not include foreign policy at all (it had, however, an entire section on how she would fight Islamism). Only after Macron issued a statement supporting European solidarity on 9th December in preparation for the upcoming French presidency of the EU did Pécresse counterattack with a declaration that she will “fight for Europe as well as for France” against “the influence strategy of great powers (United States, China, Russia).” (It’s notable that she lumps the democratic US together with the authoritarian and expansionist China and Russia.) Her manifesto, which is gradually updated as the campaign progresses, now does mention foreign policy, but only briefly, vaguely, and at the end. To portray herself as a strong stateswoman, it states that “like Angela Merkel, Pécresse would visit Washington, Moscow, and Beijing every year,” but although Merkel was indeed a powerful European figure, she was hardly firm with China and Russia. In short, Pécresse is keen to show Macron that he’s not the only one with the poise of a European leader, but she has little of substance to say about China and the Asia-Pacific in general.
Perhaps there are some clues in her past. Pécresse’s outreach to China is often linked to technology, and she has a long track record of pursuing scientific cooperation with the country, which is not surprising since her first high-profile job was as France’s minister of scientific research. It is in this capacity that, in 2007, she met her Chinese counterpart to try and sell him France’s neuroscientific expertise. In 2010, in the same role, she argued for more young Chinese to study in France. In 2018, when she was president of the Ile-de-France – the region of France surrounding Paris, she signed an agreement with Beijing and Zheijang province to promote “urban modernization.” She was keen to include Zheijang province because it hosted “several innovative companies like Alibaba.” She also signed an agreement with Alibaba to bring more Chinese tourists to France and facilitate Alipay use. When Huawei opened a research centre in Paris – something French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed security concerns about – Pécresse congratulated the Chinese company.
Let’s take a look at her allies in LR. Her most serious challenger in the primaries was Michel Barnier, a former foreign minister and EU commissioner, and the EU’s negotiator with the UK for Brexit: in short, a veteran of French diplomacy. Despite having been sorely defeated by Pécresse in the primary, he was quick to announce his support for her after. He is, potentially, her future foreign minister. And what is Barnier’s record on China? He is the very man who approved the construction of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, initially a partnership between China and France – and he did so even though the French diplomatic and intelligence community advised him against it, correctly anticipating that the Chinese would take over the venture.
The risk with Pécresse and her colleagues is a typical right-wing appetite for business with China that could give Beijing more leverage over the French economy, something that has been wisely avoided so far. Still, to be fair, the Wuhan lab was initiated in 2004, during the Hu Jintao administration, when many people believed the country was going to liberalize. In fact, LR hasn’t been in power since 2012, which is the year Xi Jinping took over, and so its entire record is based on dealings with Hu. We do not know what LR would do if it had to deal with the much more aggressive and authoritarian Xi.
The risk with Pécresse and her colleagues is a typical right-wing appetite for business with China that could give Beijing more leverage over the French economy.
The next most likely president is the (in)famous Marine Le Pen, a far-right leader who has run for the office thrice before, and leads the party Rassemblement National (RN). Like Pécresse, she is credited with around 15% of votes in polls, making them equally likely to reach the second round. Le Pen has a record of pushing back against China, but the way in which she’s done so is typical of a far-right blood-and-soil nationalist. And, like former US President Donald Trump, while she often rails against China, she is openly pro-Russian.
Marine Le Pen spent two decades observing how French voters reacted to her positions: for example, she observed that even the most Euroskeptic amongst the French people fear a full-blown “Frexit” would be calamitous, so she eventually toned down her anti-EU rhetoric. She has done all she could to soften her party’s image, which was that of a racist, socially-reactionary movement. Instead, she portrays herself as a champion of Western freedoms against Islamist values (she was so angry at LR using this theme as well that she called it “the Chinese of politics,” as a way to accuse it of counterfeiting). A virulent protectionist, she calls for the re-industrialization of France, and recently suggested a “patriotic label” be stamped on products, with a color code to show how French they are, “and bright red if 100% made in China.” But her party is similarly hostile to France’s reliance on technology (like microchips) from Taiwan or South Korea, and it promises to have such goods produced in France. She remains, at her core, an isolationist: for her the threat from China matters only in terms of protectionism and the economy.
Besides these two, who might replace Macron? The French left is in total disarray. Put together, all the moderate left candidates barely amount to 13% of the vote in polls. But their stance on China is much clearer – and much braver. This was illustrated recently: on 28th January, Christiane Taubira, a former justice minister, who’s running as an independent after leaving the historically-dominant, centre-left Parti Socialiste, co-wrote an opinion piece in the major daily newspaper Libération calling for a French boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics because of China’s human rights abuses, especially towards the Uyghur population.
Sharing authorship with her is Yannick Jadot, the candidate of the green party EELV. EELV once had almost zero significance (unlike in Germany and Belgium, there has never been a powerful green political movement in France), but in recent years its support has been growing sharply: the last two times the French people voted (European Parliament elections in 2019 and city council elections in 2020) EELV enjoyed unprecedentedly good results, garnering more votes than any other party on the moderate left. Jadot himself has called for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics before, and in April 2021, he published an essay in Le Monde (France’s most important newspaper) about “pushing back authoritarianism,” saying “first, depend on them less,” and calling for united European action to pressure China. Jadot also publicly accused Macron of selling out on human rights when he sold Airbus planes and nuclear technology to China in 2018.
Still, polls give Jadot and Taubira barely 5% of votes each. It seems unlikely either will reach the second round of voting, unless something unexpected and dramatic enough happens. Until then, the only possible challenger to Macron on the left is far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (LFI). Here, we are entering openly pro-Chinese territory. In 2008, Mélenchon opposed a potential boycott of Beijing’s Summer Olympic Games, and claimed that “Tibet is Chinese since the 14th Century.” In a 2016 interview with a pro-Chinese French website, he said China should assume “leadership,” and that “China is a better friend to France than the Dalai Lama.” On his own YouTube channel, he railed against “Macronist authoritarianism” while calling for “more trade with China” and praising China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific. He called Taiwan “a little piece of China that pretends to be a country,” and when Tsai Ing-wen called Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election victory in 2016, Mélenchon said it was “like if a foreign head of state took a call from Marine Le Pen,” an insanely dumb comparison that should disqualify him in the minds of the very voters he chases: lovers of social justice. Three months before the vote, he only reaches 9% in polls, but he had double that number of actual votes in the last election and remains a serious candidate.
But there is worse: the independent fascist candidate Eric Zemmour. A former, long-time newspaper columnist, he is shamelessly populist and vulgar (he recently made headlines by raising his middle finger at an opponent); he represents the absolute bottom of the barrel in France. His reactionary program is openly chauvinist, misogynist, racist, authoritarian, and corporatist in nature – as well as thoroughly Anglophobic. Not surprisingly, he feels a strong sympathy with the Chinese Communist Party. And he stands at 13% in polls, directly behind Le Pen, whose support he is relentlessly working to chip away at (lacking a party to back him up, he hurriedly created one in January, which he called Reconquête!).
Zemmour has been pampered by the Bolloré family conglomerate, whose vast holdings include a media empire. A good illustration of the man and his patrons is Zemmour’s lecture on Taiwan: in April 2021, he was given 10 minutes to perorate on the topic, surrounded with nodding, servile hosts, all courtesy of Bolloré-controlled channel CNews. He rambled about Taiwan belonging to China from time immemorial, Americans being the cause of Asia’s problems, and made a fatuous comparison between Taiwan and Danzig (which, for him, was really a German city). The vacuity of the guest and the vapid complacency of the hosts made the program look like a scene straight out of China’s state-controlled media.
Zemmour rambled about Taiwan belonging to China from time immemorial and Americans being the cause of Asia’s problems.
But populism is not on the rise in France. The well-seasoned candidate Le Pen is happy to have Zemmour’s histrionics in the spotlight (the same poll that showed foreign policy isn’t a priority for French voters also found that the vast majority of voters lament the vulgarity they are witnessing from candidates so far). The most shrewd and skilled contenders have realized that French voters crave a certain poise, calm, and dignity from their candidates. The French people still want to believe they are civilized, and want a president who matches the image they hold of themselves. This makes it difficult for a naked populist like Zemmour to become president, and skews the field heavily in favor of more measured candidates like Macron and Pécresse.
The second round of voting means a candidate needs not only a sizeable base of support, he also needs to not be hated by too many others, as this would compromise his ability to absorb the supporters of the candidates who fall in the first round. Ultimately, even if they managed to make it into the second round, Zemmour, Le Pen, and Mélenchon are too polarizing to rally those voters. If, in an even bigger plot twist, Taubira or Jadot were to harness enough votes to make it to the second round, they would need to gain support from people who voted for right-wing candidates in the first round, most of whom are so averse to the left that they’d either abstain or see Macron as the lesser of two evils. This pretty much leaves Macron or Pécresse as the victor, which means little to no foreseeable change in France’s foreign policy on China and the Asia-Pacific.