President Emmanuel Macron is being played by China. His own diplomats know the text. It’s not some ancient document; it was scripted for Charles de Gaulle and has been rolled out for every French president since then. They ought to have a copy in the Quai d’Orsay.

This time, the president thinks he has discovered a privileged role for France in dealing with China. His belief has been strengthened by a laudatory call to his diplomatic counselor, Emmanuel Bonne, from Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, who outranks the Chinese foreign minister and is thus held to be close to the throne.

According to the Xinhua news agency, Wang “appreciated” Macron’s “important” remarks emphasizing “France’s independent diplomatic tradition’ and spoke of their “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Decoded, this means China sees progress in its ambition to detach France from the Western alliance and to divide its interlocutors over Ukraine, Taiwan, trade, and other contentious issues. Beijing was also pleased when France vetoed a NATO office in Tokyo.

The call followed Macron’s visit to China in April, which Xinhua termed “a great success,” his “informal” chats with its leader Xi Jinping and an unwise interview in which the president echoed the ideal of solitary diplomatic grandeur so dear to his predecessors.

The playbook entails a lavish but content-lite visit to China, moments of “rare” intimacy with its self-cloistered leaders, and the promise of abundance to come. Propaganda is stilled, flowery words blossom.

The script unfolds amid mutual professions of respect for antiquity and culture, praise for the exquisite statecraft each imagines the other to practice, and a shared distaste for “hegemony”, all code for a superior attitude to those arrivistes in Washington.

For the French, it always begins with discovery. “A great people, the most numerous on earth, a vast land stretching from Asia Minor and the Marches of Europe to the shores of the Pacific . . . a state older than history itself . . .” So spoke de Gaulle on announcing mutual recognition on 27 January, 1964. To his confidante, Alain Peyrefitte, de Gaulle was less poetic. It would, he said, annoy the Americans.

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France gained little. According to the Cambridge scholar Martin Albers, who examined state papers from the 1960s, “trade remained at a very moderate level, and French influence on Chinese policies was effectively non-existent.”

In 1973, President Georges Pompidou was rewarded with a state visit to the People’s Republic – a year after Richard Nixon’s historic trip. Then, in May 1975, a little-known Vice Premier named Deng Xiaoping landed in Paris to see President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and his prime minister, Jacques Chirac.

The memoirs of the distinguished ambassador Claude Martin, La diplomatie n’est pas un dîner de gala, tell how Giscard welcomed Deng in a salon full of chinoiserie. “France has always paid the highest consideration down the centuries to your great people and to the civilization it has given the world,” he said.

There followed, in fact, a dîner de gala at which Deng surprised the French by his familiarity with haute cuisine and fine wines. He told his hosts that “France and China must preserve their independence and resist the hegemony of the superpowers.”

For French statesmen, writes Martin, these lofty sentiments translated as follows: “We must be able to sell everything to Beijing, military as well as civilian. Refineries, trains, telephones, radar, helicopters, planes, agricultural products, and nuclear plants.” There was even a memo to sell Concorde aircraft.

Every French president has sought to play the same cards in different sequences. Even after an EU ban on arms sales in 1989, the Elysée’s enthusiasm did not flag. Martin recounts how Nicolas Sarkozy even established a quiet visa ban for dissidents so as not to offend the Chinese. And so on.

A dose of realism came in a report by a parliamentary committee of inquiry last week, which said China has a covert strategy to interfere in French public life, steal secrets, and subvert liberal democracy, ranking it second only to Russia as a threat.

Bernard Emié, director of French External Intelligence (DGSE), told the committee that China has gone from being a “contained power” to an “aggressive power” using its diaspora and its cultural network to wage information warfare and conduct espionage.

The lesson is that for the Chinese, there is nothing new under the sun except French presidents. For the French, it might be worth paying more attention to wise old heads in the Quai who have heard it all before.

Michael Sheridan is the author of ‘The Gate to China: A new history of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong’ published by HarperCollins and Oxford University Press (USA). He was the Far East Correspondent of The Sunday Times for 20 years.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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