French President Emmanuel Macron will head to China next week for a rare visit to the rising superpower, in an awkward balancing act between his global statesman ambitions and his struggle to contain embarrassing pension protests at home.
The French leader, whose decision to ram much-disputed pension legislation through parliament earlier this month sparked clashes and violence in French cities, is trying to keep his busy diplomatic schedule on track.
But the chaotic scenes of burning piles of rubbish in Paris, which were broadcast around the world, have already forced Macron to cancel a state visit by Britain’s King Charles, an embarrassment which did not go unnoticed in diplomatic circles.
“It’s a very prestigious thing to host the first visit abroad of the King of England, it doesn’t happen every day. If you can’t pull it off, it’s a problem,” the ambassador of a European country told Reuters.
“It’s clear it is weakening him,” another EU diplomat said. “It’s hard to measure the impact, but there is one.”
The protests, which will see unions stage an 11th nationwide strike during Macron’s time in Beijing, come as the French president is trying to regain the initiative on the war in Ukraine and play a leadership role in Europe.
That hasn’t escaped Chinese observers.
“The protests bring a large amount of risk and France needs a diplomatic highlight, especially since it wants to play the role of Europe’s leader,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the Centre for European Studies at Renmin University in China.
Macron will also need to keep in mind China’s tactic of playing divide and rule, said a non-Western diplomat who suggested China may try to use the trip to place a wedge in the Western camp and lure France away from the United States.
RED LINE ON RUSSIA
For his part, Macron wants to send a clear warning to his counterpart Xi Jinping, who was hosted at the Kremlin by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month, that Europe will not accept China providing arms to Russia, now a year into its invasion of Ukraine.
“Our message will be clear: There may be a temptation to get closer to Russia, but do not cross that line,” a senior French diplomat said.
Analysts say Putin’s decision to station nuclear weapons in Belarus can provide an opportunity for France to push China to distance itself from Russia on this point, Beijing having long denounced nuclear proliferation.
“France is a nuclear power, it’s got this card to play,” Antoine Bondaz of the France-based FRS think-tank.
However, a Brussels-based diplomat said many in Europe were doubtful he could be successful in his previously stated aim of nudging China to put pressure on Moscow to end the war. “Many in Brussels roll their eyes when you bring that up,” he said.
French diplomats are playing down the impact the protests at home could have on Macron’s credibility abroad. They point out Xi faced his own protests at the end of last year, in a rare show of civil disobedience over COVID-19 restrictions.
“The Chinese will play a fine balancing act. They need a good relationship with Europe so will not want to play on Macron’s internal problems,” another French diplomat said.
Amid worsening relations between Washington and Beijing, which reached fever pitch last month after the U.S. shot down a Chinese balloon flying over its territory, Europe is trying to carve its own path.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who will be accompanying Macron in Beijing, said the bloc was looking to “de-risk” diplomatically and economically at a time China was exerting greater control over companies, without “decoupling”.
Analysts say China’s deteriorating relationship with the U.S. gives Europe a bit more leverage, with the EU’s vast single market becoming more crucial for China.
That can provide an opportunity for Macron, who has pushed Europe to bolster its “strategic autonomy”, but is also hoping France and the rest of the EU can benefit from a reopening Chinese economy after years of pandemic.
“Macron can deliver a message that Europe wants to engage with China, but that it’s going to be difficult if China continues down the path that it’s currently on with Russia,” Noah Barkin, an analyst with Rhodium Group, said.