The special role that never was

  • Themes: China, France

French policy in China in the twenty-first century draws on a contradictory heritage. It does not lack intelligence and skill. Yet Macron is just the latest president to seek a special role for France in an era when a few great powers are calling the shots.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron review a Chinese guard of honour during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron review a Chinese guard of honour during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Diplomacy equals grandeur in France, so when President François Hollande hosted his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, it was natural that a banquet should be held in the grand salle des fêtes of the Elysée Palace, a dazzle of chandeliers and gilt inaugurated in 1899 for the great Paris exhibition.

The event in March 2014 marked 50 years of diplomatic relations between France and the People’s Republic. The Chinese leader circulated among celebrities, scholars, captains of industry, and politicians. He had a particularly warm greeting for Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former prime minister of the right, known to French diplomats as ‘monsieur China’.

There was much to toast — 50 commercial deals in aviation, nuclear power, car-making, and agriculture; then high-level strategic talks, at which France and China ‘found no reason for discord’ over a small crisis in Ukraine, where Russia had just annexed the Crimean peninsula.

Indeed the only discordant note came from a French minister who criticised the food (foie gras truffé, volailles des Landes rôties, fromages, nuance chocolat et caramel). M. Hollande’s chief of staff had to rush to the Elysée kitchens to placate an apoplectic chef. Apart from that, harmony reigned. It was the high-water mark of Sino-French understanding.

One observer that evening was the distinguished ambassador Claude Martin, who recorded it in a 2018 memoir entitled, without apparent irony, La diplomatie n’est pas un dîner de gala.

When President Xi appeared for a second state visit five years later, the world had changed. A new French president, Emmanuel Macron, found he was dealing with a different China, a state that was rich and proud even if most of its citizens were still poor. The Macrons paid a return trip, starting in Shanghai, where the two presidential couples met on the ‘bridge of nine turnings’, which zigzags through the Yuyuan garden. There was something apt about that, too.

For the French, policy towards China in the modern age came wreathed in visionary truisms. Charles de Gaulle set the tone in 1964 when he broke ranks to inaugurate relations with Beijing, which the French persist in calling Pékin to this day. It was, said de Gaulle, a vast land extending from the European landmass to distant oceans and a state older than history itself. Antiquity and glory clung to both civilisations, or so the general affected to believe. The Chinese went along with this presumptuous notion.  Both Maoist China and Gaullist France knew they would annoy the Americans.

De Gaulle sent Lucien Paye, a politician and war hero, as his first ambassador to China. Paye was an Arabist, a veteran of French colonial administration in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, a former minister of education and a lifelong educator. He did not know China.

Some argued that experience did not matter. Isolated in their foreign compounds, fine intellects debated the opaque, the abstruse, and the ideological from what they could deduce in the press and see on the streets. Too much history could be a burden.

The insiders had the privilege of shaping opinion in their home countries because communications were poor and censorship was tight. When the Italian Marxist director Michelangelo Antonioni took lightweight film cameras into the country a few years later, even drab scenes had a patina of rare fascination (the Chinese hated his documentary). Any new facts or sources were precious.

Perhaps that was why the lights burned brightly one evening in the window of the French cultural attaché. He was entertaining the legendary K.S. Karol, roving correspondent of Le Nouvel Observateur, a periodical of the left that was read assiduously in the Quai D’Orsay. Karol was an ‘engaged’ journalist and a connoisseur of revolutions; broadly speaking he approved of all of them. Born in Russia, his life traced the twentieth century’s convulsions from Poland to Ukraine, to France and wartime London, then Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam and Hungary. Once captured by Stalin’s NKVD, some suspected he had never entirely quit the Soviet sphere. He arrived in China trailing stardust, accompanied by the equally renowned photographer Marc Riboud.

Claude Martin, a junior diplomat at the time, dined with Karol. ‘He had not come to observe but to encourage,’ noted Martin. The great man was inclining from Moscow towards Beijing as their schism widened. He had been horrified by Khruschev’s reforms and had hopes of Mao Zedong. Would China eliminate the bourgeoisie, banish the ‘rightist’ intellectuals, and make people’s communes everywhere? Karol interrogated any exiled Western Marxist-Leninist he could find while swapping reminiscences of the Comintern and the Spanish Civil War. He was rewarded by an interview with Zhou Enlai, second-in-command to Mao.

Such were the intellectual influences on the French Embassy (although Martin was a sceptic) as well as on the Left Bank, where Karol’s readers dined and discussed foreign policy. If Le Nouvel Observateur was radical, Le Monde carried the flame of the tiers-mondiste ideal that underpinned a French theory of distinctive non-alignment.

In short, France pursued an independent foreign policy run by those critical of Western colonialism, grudgingly sympathetic to the regimes that had evicted them from Indochina and North Africa, determined not to submit to American power, and committed to establishing a Gallic order in Europe as a counterweight to the Cold War blocs. All this, while sheltering under the NATO nuclear umbrella as a semi-detached member of the alliance. Little wonder Washington found it exasperating.

Nonetheless, the system turned out a number of sophisticated diplomats, whose analysis dissented from standard Cold War doctrines. The second French ambassador to Mao’s China, Etienne Manac’h, who served from 1969 to 1975, played a role in back-channel negotiations during the Vietnam War and gained almost mythical status among anti-war Americans for what Martin, an admirer, called his clairvoyance.

Manac’h was a Breton, a philosopher and a teacher, who had been a member of the French Communist Party from 1934 to 1939, presumably quitting after the Nazi-Soviet pact. He worked for the Resistance and moved into the foreign ministry after the Second World War, rising to the influential post of director for Asia and Oceania before his posting to Beijing.

Not all French diplomats were cut from the same cloth. Manac’h’s successor at the Quai is said to have dismissed a Chinese official’s recitation of historical claims in the South China Sea from the Yuan, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties with the retort: ‘I get lost among all your Mings, Tings and Pings, it ends up breaking my head.’

More tact was called for in Beijing, but Manac’h was accused of egoism by his critics. When King Sihanouk of Cambodia fled there after a CIA-backed coup installed the military dictatorship of Lon Nol, the ambassador swiftly assured him of France’s support in its former colony. His clairvoyance did not foresee the alliance between Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge, which, with Chinese backing, ultimately brought genocide to Cambodia.

French diplomacy may not have got the moral consequences right but it often excelled at analysis. In the 1960s, for example, even the cleverest tiers-mondistes saw that the developing world had failed to obey the theories of solidarity admired at the Sorbonne.

China stood almost alone. Cuba was in the pro-Soviet bloc. North Vietnam, Romania, and North Korea navigated between Moscow and Beijing. Indonesia had staged a pogrom of supposed communists. Only tiny and distant Albania was a true ideological ally.

Beijing could count on Algeria, Pakistan, Angola, and Tanzania as worthy but ineffective friends. Its relations with Burma were tentative. Maoist parties agitated in India, Nepal, and even Japan, but to less effect than the Chinese media pretended. In Europe, long-forgotten polemics on the far left in France and Belgium led some to think Chinese doctrines were gaining ground among Marxist-Leninists. It added up to little.

There are lessons for today in how the French read Chinese diplomacy in the 1960s. In general, the more violent its language against American imperialism, the weaker China felt. The Vietnam War exposed its powerlessness on its own doorstep. It lacked the military strength to intervene. It had no bombers to rival the B-52s and no fighters to match the US in combat. Its huge peasant army was of no use to the skilful guerrillas of the Viet Cong. And Ho Chi Minh himself had said, in scatological terms, that he would rather endure a Western stink for a while than a Chinese stink for a thousand years.

Over it all loomed the spectre of the Soviet Union on China’s northern frontier. We now know the Kremlin leadership considered a nuclear first strike on China and sought American understanding for a pre-emptive raid on Chinese nuclear weapons sites. That is why Mao spent billions digging tunnels under big cities and moving critical industries from the coast deep into the hinterland. In the end, fear of Russia led Mao and Zhou Enlai to turn to Richard Nixon in 1972 to shift the balance of power.

The French could only be spectators at such tectonic events, but nothing deterred their zeal to find a role. The foreign minister, Robert Schumann, went to Beijing and met Mao, marvelling at the chairman’s ‘passion’ for France, his knowledge of great French mathematicians, the intellectual affinity between their two countries and the opportunities for a privileged relationship.

These illusions were not easily dispelled. The diplomats pointed out that a country like France could only count as part of Europe if it wanted to compete. America and Japan would dominate economically when China opened up. The world, as Mao said, was dividing into big blocs. No French president or prime minister has ever accepted this diagnosis. Yet it proved accurate.

As the French watched through ‘a delectable and fugitive autumn’ in Beijing, the Americans came in their hundreds to occupy a big embassy, and the Chinese quietly turned their nuclear bunkers into shopping malls. One by one the Europeans came too, until the pretensions of precedence upon which French ambassadors set such store became irrelevant. They greeted the newcomers with ‘light condescension’, which soon frayed. The arrival of the Italians, trumpeting their ancestor Marco Polo, may have been the final insult.

France had gained little. According to the scholar Martin Albers, who has 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 granted a state visit to the People’s Republic, a year after Nixon’s history-making trip.

It was time for a change. Gaullist intellectuals, like Maoists, had maintained the integrity of their convictions but found themselves outdated after the chairman’s death in 1976. China began to open up. The new caste of diplomats did not have the luxury of philosophising. They were there to cash in.

The period saw the French presidency move back to a decisive role in China policy. It began when a little-known vice premier named Deng Xiaoping landed in Paris to see President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and his prime minister, Jacques Chirac. Giscard welcomed him in a salon full of chinoiserie. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that the visitor might wonder how such treasures had ended up in Paris.

Deng did not let history spoil the dîner de gala afterwards. He told the French what they wanted to hear; namely that ‘France and China must preserve their independence and resist the hegemony of the superpowers’.

For the statesmen, writes Martin, this grand strategy meant profit: ‘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.’ They even hoped to sell Concordes.

Giscard, at least, was capable of irony. Presented with a grandiose set of cultural projects, he exploded: ‘Ridiculous! Do we really think a billion Chinese want to learn French?’

Successive French presidents have oscillated between greed, opportunism and the rhetorical high ground. To the Chinese, it must seem bewildering. The EU banned the sale of arms to Beijing after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Yet was it in the subtle tradition of Talleyrand to sell frigates to Taiwan in a transaction perfumed by scandal? The diplomats were aghast.

By the mid-1990s, the Mitterrand era in France was ending and the Chinese were keen to see the back of his socialist ministers. Apart from the notorious foreign minister Roland Dumas (he of the frigates), they particularly detested his predecessor Claude Cheysson and France’s first female prime minister Edith Cresson.

On the right, however, were ‘old friends’ of Beijing, those nostalgic for de Gaulle, realists who saw China as a great power, be it a democracy or despotism, a strategic partner for France and thus not to be troubled over Tibet, Taiwan, or human rights. When they took office, relations improved.

One irony is that de Gaulle’s confidant, Alain Peyrefitte, wrote the textbook on Western encounters with the Chinese state. His work, which appeared in English as The Collision of Two Civilizations: the British expedition to China in 1792-4, told the story of Lord Macartney’s failed mission to establish relations with the Qing empire. Elegant and psychologically astute, the book was required reading for British officials handling the handover of Hong Kong.

French policy in China in the twenty-first century draws on a contradictory heritage. It does not lack intelligence and skill. Yet Macron is just the latest president to seek a special role for France in an era when a few great powers are calling the shots. The Chinese never lose sight of their big picture: Xi Jinping bluntly told Hollande in 2013 the West was sowing chaos in the world and that France had lost its distinctive voice since Nicolas Sarkozy decided to rejoin the military command of NATO four years earlier. Realists all, China’s leaders know their talking points.

The noises of bellicose chauvinism are rising in the East. Chinese ministers have lectured their Asian neighbours about the need to respect big countries ‘because this is a fact’. Wang Yi, a supposedly sophisticated figure often described as ‘China’s top diplomat,’ recently told his Korean and Japanese counterparts that Westerners will always despise them however much they dye their hair yellow and straighten their noses. Clearly it would be unwise to receive Wang in a salon full of looted chinoiserie.

It may be that Macron has privileged information which leads him to fear that war will break out (I believe he has). He would not be the first French leader to think it worth appeasing a dictatorship in the service of peace. Perhaps he is right that the West will need to draw on every resource of firm but flexible diplomacy to avert a catastrophe. If so, the institutional memory of the Quai d’Orsay, with all its splendours and miseries, is at the president’s service.


Michael Sheridan