By Thomas des Garets Geddes
President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, will face each other for the second time in France’s presidential runoff next week. A victory for Le Pen might be good news for Russia, but not for China. Chinese scholars support Macron for his ability to help strengthen and shape the EU’s push towards greater strategic autonomy.
Macron — a scholar-official à la Française
Macron’s popularity among China’s intellectual elite is high. So much so that it is difficult to find meaningful criticism of his policies, either domestic or foreign. From the Yellow Vests protests to COVID, France has been through a lot in the past five years. Yet despite his country’s oft-cited general “decline”, Macron’s efforts to put France back on the right track continue to be lauded in China.
His personality plays a part in this. Macron embodies much that the Chinese admire in a civil servant. He is the perfect scholar-official à la Française. Macron is often described as well-educated, highly capable and pragmatic. More importantly, he is regarded as friendly towards China. “His book ‘Revolution’ … is full of praise for China,” (对中国赞不绝口) comments Song Luzheng, a researcher at Fudan University. What’s more, Macron’s past warnings against the formation of an anti-China coalition are cited as proof of France’s favorable intentions. “Macron never rejects China in his grand strategy, but rather emphasizes cooperation with China and flexibility in his approach to it,” write Wu Yiwen and Wang Shuo, two professors at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Macronian neo-Gaullism is in line with Chinese interests
Chinese scholars describe Macron as a leader with a vision — the rightful heir to Gaullism. His approach to foreign affairs is described as “Macronian neo-Gaullism” (马克龙版新戴高乐主义), “flexible classicism” (灵活的古典主义) or as a new type of multilateralism (马克龙新多边主义外交). “Macron's new and innovative multilateralist diplomacy has already attracted international attention and has, to some extent, been welcomed and accepted by the international community,” argues Wu Guoqing, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Many also salute his efforts to transform France into a “balancing power” (puissance d'équilibre) that is not afraid of engaging with American foes like Russia or Iran.
Macron’s approach to foreign affairs is regarded as compatible with China’s own vaunted concept of “genuine multilateralism” (真正的多边主义). Both are said to oppose unilateralism and hegemonism. Both claim to promote multipolarity and globalization. And both supposedly aim to strengthen global governance and international law. Crucially, according to Wu, France seeks to “de-ideologize“ (去意识形态化) international affairs. This, of course, is of great appeal to China. The one point of contention, however, is France’s advocacy of “minilatéralisme”, whose “small clique mentality” Beijing has previously condemned.
China is turning its attention to France
But China’s main interest in Macron lies not so much in his influence over France as in his ability to shape the EU. Chinese scholars hope for Macron’s re-election because they believe that he — and certainly not Le Pen — is the one leader in Europe most capable of strengthening the EU and pushing it in a direction more favorable to China’s own interests. That is, increasing every aspect of the EU’s strategic autonomy and thus independence from the US.
Since Angela Merkel’s announcement in 2018 of her intention to step down, attention in China has gradually been turning towards France. As Zhang Ji, an academic at Fudan University, recently stated, “The ‘German-French axis’ is shifting to a ‘Franco-German axis’. The role of the leading power in the EU is once again returning to France.” This is echoed by other foreign policy experts in China. Simply put, Germany remains the EU’s core engine, but France is increasingly portrayed as its key strategist. Or as the influential analyst Cui Hongjian puts it, “Paris has ideas but it lacks money … France may play a leading role in strategic vision, security and diplomacy, but it needs Germany's strong cooperation to promote specific issues.”
Macron, France and their Gaullist vision of the world, are therefore increasingly seen as the way to stave off a potential US-led grand coalition against China. That said, the Chinese are under no illusion that they could find an actual ally in the EU, France or even Macron. They are fully aware that Europe is culturally and politically too close to the US for that to happen. But they do believe in the possibility of encouraging the EU to adopt a more French-like — and thus US-sceptic — type of neutrality. Le Pen with her “populist”, “erratic” and “anti-European policies” (反欧的政策) would undermine such plans. The Chinese elite will be voting Macron next week.