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In the French election campaign, trade with China and Chinese investment raise similar controversies as in the U.S. last fall. Even if a moderate candidate wins, France is likely to adopt a tougher stance vis-à-vis China.

Flags of France and China

When Emmanuel Macron speaks about China, he can sound like Donald Trump. “We are in the midst of a battle against Chinese dumping. The Chinese are selling their products at a loss and we cannot accept this,” Macron said in late 2015 when he headed the French Ministry of the Economy. Today, the liberal centrist is the shooting star in France’s presidential election campaign – and his comments during the dispute over Chinese steel exports over a year ago still resonate with the electorate.  

Protecting French workers against downsides of global trade

Macron’s suggested responses to unfair Chinese trading practices are of course vastly different from those proposed by Trump or, for that matter, his far-right electoral competitor Marine Le Pen. Most importantly, he sees the European Union as the solution rather than the problem and vows to defend rather than scrap the ‘rules-based international system’.

But ultimately, the pledge to protect French workers against the vicissitudes of global trade is what unites France’s presidential candidates from left to right. Even if concerns over China’s trade policies don’t dominate the headlines, France’s position in the global economy is likely to be a decisive issue in the two election rounds in April and May.

Echoing the themes of the 2016 U.S. campaign, there is a widespread sentiment among French voters that France is getting a bad deal out of globalization. An opinion poll by Pew Research suggests that 45 percent of the French public have a negative view of global economic engagement – compared to 49 percent who hold that view in the U.S., but only 24 percent in Germany or 29 in the UK.

French public distrusts China

Even if none of the major candidates currently lashes out at China with the same frequency and intensity as Trump did last year, the perceived sell-out of French industries – and agricultural land – to Chinese competitors has become a major issue in this rising anti-globalization rhetoric.

China’s growing impact on the world’s economies has been shown to foster political populism in North American and European societies. France is the only European country in which a relative majority (44 percent) already sees China, rather than the U.S., as the leading global economic power. At the same time, 61 percent of French respondents hold unfavorable views of China, a degree of distrust only topped in Japan (86 percent).

All of France’s presidential candidates have to take this into account when it comes to dealing with disputes over Chinese dumping practices or acquisitions of French companies. Even if they don’t subscribe to the brand of “economic patriotism” propagated by the far-right candidate Le Pen, who has identified China as one of several foreign powers that ruthlessly take advantage of the French “naïveté”, the argument that France and Europe are being outsmarted by those who don’t follow the rules has gone mainstream.

For Le Pen’s strongest rival, the independent candidate Macron, trade with China is a tricky issue. A hard protectionist line would not fit in with his fight for an open and progressive country, but he is also trying hard not to be cast as the detached member of a globalist elite. He has recently avoided this topic as a candidate but luckily for him, he had already gained his reputation as a fighter for the European steel industry during last year’s standoff, in which China was accused of dumping its steel overcapacities onto the world market.

While the official socialist candidate Benoît Hamon shuns foreign policy issues, candidates on the radical left and the Gaullist right have not minced their words. Their respective fights for French jobs and economic interests have included aggressive anti-Chinese rhetoric in recent months: “China will eat us,” warned neo-Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan who views his country as a “prisoner of unjust rules of globalization.” Similar to the Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left, he has little faith in the EU to implement what he calls “intelligent protectionism.”

In what is perhaps the most surprising nod to the current political climate in France, even François Fillon has lately started to argue for a “European preference for our industries, our services, our jobs.” In late January, the self-confessed Thatcherite, who won the center-right primary on a decidedly neoliberal platform, expanded his quest to “defend the European civilization” by “fighting for a Europe that controls its borders” to the economic sphere, adding that he wants “a Europe able to defend its industries and jobs against China and the U.S.”

“France first” or “Europe first”?

Regardless of the election outcome, the next French president will have to find a way to follow up on their rhetoric to satisfy the electorate. This could mean confronting China (at least rhetorically) in ways that could jeopardize the incipient Sino-European rapprochement in the wake of the Trump administration’s boorish diplomatic start. It could also mean prioritizing the short-term protection of domestic jobs over the long-term endeavor to maintain a rules-based, liberal international order.

The crucial question for European China policy becomes whether a new French president will lobby for more protective measures against China within the European Union or try to confront Beijing on his or her own. A victory of Le Pen, with her phantasies of the grand, “sovereign nation” going it alone, would most certainly trigger the latter response. A more moderate election winner would likely use the existing EU framework to push for stronger industrial policies and trade defense to increase European ‘competitiveness’.

In any case, France’s presidential elections will be closely followed not only in Brussels, but also in Beijing.