Macron's balancing act in China is what the world needs right now

Mindful of France's diminishing great power status, the president is playing his cards responsibly

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron walk in a garden in Guangzhou, China, last Friday. AP Photo
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French President Emanuel Macron finds himself under attack right, left and centre in Europe and North America after what he no doubt regards as his successful visit to China. The influential German Christian Democrat MP Norbert Rottgen said that Mr Macron had “managed to turn his China trip into a PR coup” for Chinese President Xi Jinping and “a foreign policy disaster for Europe”. In the US, Mr Macron was rebuked by several prominent Republicans, among them Senator Marco Rubio, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and Congressman Mike Gallagher, who described an interview the French leader gave on the plane home as “a massive propaganda victory for the Chinese Communist Party”.

Mr Macron should be encouraged by this. It shows that, just as when Americans called his countrymen “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” for the then president Jacques Chirac’s refusal to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he’s probably getting something right.

The warm tone of Mr Macron’s interactions with Mr Xi during his three days in China and the commitment to a “global strategic partnership” that the two leaders announced had already irked some. Mr Macron arrived with a phalanx of top businessmen. None of the “decoupling” from Beijing urged by US hawks for him. But it was the interview he gave to Politico and the French newspaper Les Echos on the journey home that roused critics to fury.

They didn’t like that he said: “Is it in our interest to accelerate on the subject of Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and adapt to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction.” The “great risk” Europe faces, he said, is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours”.

France still has a voice when it comes to world affairs, and Macron has used it to make points no other western nation would

“Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine; how can we credibly say on Taiwan, ‘watch out, if you do something wrong we will be there’? If you really want to increase tensions that’s the way to do it,” he warned. Staying out of any escalations around the island that China considers a renegade province and increasing Europe’s resilience should be the focus, according to the French president. “If the tensions between the two superpowers heat up … we won’t have the time nor the resources to finance our strategic autonomy and we will become vassals instead of a third pole if we had a few years to build it.”

Mr Macron’s remarks should not really be so terribly surprising. They were firmly within the Gaullist tradition of forging an independent French foreign policy; of being clearly part of western alliances, such as Nato, but refusing to accept that Paris should be expected to be subordinate to Washington’s leadership, which is why then president Charles de Gaulle removed France from Nato’s military structure in 1966. The country eventually returned in 2009, but Mr Macron has continued to strike his own path in international relations, trying to persuade Vladimir Putin not to invade Ukraine in February 2022, for instance, and insisting afterwards that Russia should not be “humiliated”.

Some say that Mr Macron is mixing up France with Europe, or the EU; and that his vision of a “third pole” is at odds with the harsher views on both Russia and China held by several European countries and leaders such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who accompanied Mr Macron to China but received pretty short shrift compared to the French leader’s red carpet reception.

I would say firstly, that misses the point, and secondly, it doesn’t matter. No, neither the continent of Europe nor the EU are going to rally round Mr Macron – at least not to the point of the bloc having a strong, united, independent foreign policy backed by a powerful self-contained military. He may be able to sway the EU in favour of a more accommodating trade policy towards China a little, and eventually towards Russia, when the war in Ukraine is finally over; but even then he will face plenty who want to take a far harder line.

The real point is that France still has a voice when it comes to world affairs, and Mr Macron has used it to make a series of points that no other western nation would. Billions around the globe may well agree with him. Why is the fate of Taiwan, which is legally part of China, the concern of nations thousands of kilometres away? Nobody wants to be a vassal to anyone else. And most countries fervently hope that relations between Washington and Beijing ease, with many not-so-secretly feeling that, as Mr Macron implied, it is the former doing the provoking, not the latter.

France still has the presumption to act as though it were a great power. In truth, it is only clinging on to the vestiges of that status, but in this case Mr Macron is using his remaining ability to command the world stage sensibly and responsibly. For historic reasons, Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, can’t and won’t take such a stance. The UK – the sixth largest – always keeps a hold of America’s coattails, while no one looks to Italy, Canada or South Korea (who bring up the top 10) for global leadership.

The states of the Global South, including India, the fifth-largest economy, either don’t have the confidence to tell the world what to do or don’t believe that is how international relations should be conducted in the first place. Perhaps it takes the heft still implicit in being one of the only five permanent members of the UN Security Council that allows France to assume – correctly – that when it raps on the lectern, nation after nation will pay attention. And in this case, Mr Macron’s words were well worth listening to.

The French may sometimes be criticised for being a touch arrogant, but if it was the belief that he has a certain “je ne sais quoi” that led Mr Macron to upend the US-led western consensus on China and Taiwan so abruptly, we should in this instance be grateful. Merci, Monsieur President.

Published: April 12, 2023, 5:00 AM