French President Emmanuel Macron's appeasement of Chinese President Xi Jinping puts global security at risk – Azeem Ibrahim

Emmanuel Macron intended his trip to China to serve as the starting point for a grand strategic reinvention.

He wanted to announce a new French and European foreign policy, to point the way to a new European Union as a ‘third superpower’ independent from and comparable to the US and China. Naturally, he implied, it would be France and Macron who would lead this new strategic force. He wanted this to be his crowning moment as a statesman par excellence.

This is not what happened. Instead, the French president’s visit drew ignominy and ire. Macron spouted Chinese propaganda about how decades of Chinese aggression is really an “overreaction” provoked by the US. He made his visit seem purely commercial and avaricious by taking a long train of businessmen, greedy for the crumbs Chinese state-backed enterprise can throw their way.

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And, according to pro-democracy and anti-genocide activists, by neglecting even to mention the crushing of Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan and the genocide currently being committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Macron was spitting in the face of millions.

“The paradox would be that, overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers,” Macron told Politico. “The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”

Macron has humiliated himself and France. China’s President Xi Jinping played him like a fiddle. His naivety has not been seen in a European leader since Neville Chamberlain thought he had got concessions out of Hitler in Munich. Rather than making a grand bargain with China or launching a noble statement of strategic autonomy, Macron has reduced himself and his country to a laughingstock.

Some people had thought that this year of all years, Macron was starting to do better. He is no longer calling up Vladimir Putin every week like a teenager with a crush. His country has sent Ukraine materiel that it can gainfully use to repel the invader. But international observers, even allies of France, are now aghast. What they see is dispiriting. Not satisfied with appeasing Putin, Macron now appeases Xi.

What is Macron’s mission? In his own words, it’s to carve out a new foreign policy for Europe independent of the US and other democratic allies. This has long been his policy, one of equivocation and triangulation, which sees France as a necessary and vital bridge between the democracies and tyrannies, but somehow free from the moral taint and financial sanctions affecting the latter. A self-aggrandising, vain role – one fit for Macron’s image of himself.

French President Emmanuel Macron was given the red-carpet treatment on his visit to China (Picture: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)French President Emmanuel Macron was given the red-carpet treatment on his visit to China (Picture: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron was given the red-carpet treatment on his visit to China (Picture: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead of proving European autonomy and strength, he has instead made Europe and France seem deluded and weak. He has reconfirmed Trump's thesis that Europe is not worth defending, as they will always appease America’s enemies. Just as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeased Putin and helped him rebuild his military with energy deals, Macron will do the same for China’s fast-growing military with commercial favouritism.

The hypocrisy is staggering. France remains a member of Naton, an alliance built on American strength and money. But for Macron, this is not enough. He wants it both ways: protected by America, but able to cut deals with its adversaries for short-term gain. The EU expects the US to help defend Europe even as the head of one of its leading nations tries to cut sweetheart deals with its most dangerous rivals: first Putin and now Xi.

For years, France has been considered a flaky partner and a nation of unserious foreign policy thinkers. An unreliable ally, always prepared to sell unity out for short-term gains. Macron may want to bank Chinese cash with this deal, but in doing so, he unknowingly reinforces a trend which has cost French defence industries billions and his country respect and influence.

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The Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman reported conservations he had with senior Australian defence officials. They told him that, because of France’s longstanding attempts to appease dictators, they worried that if China threatened Australia, kit and submarines provided by France might prove less than useful heat of battle – while France posed as a mediator between Australia and China, and withheld spare parts and technical support.

No wonder, therefore, that the Australians decided to strike the Aukus deal with Britain and the US to provide submarines, voiding French contracts in the process. The French simply cannot be trusted to defend freedom from tyranny. They cannot be trusted to keep their word.

China knows this, and this is why Xi was happy to give Macron centre-stage: he is an agent in the enemies’ camp: someone who can be flattered and manipulated, someone who can always be trusted to leap at the chance to prove himself important – even at the cost of global security.

At the same time as Macron was lauded and given the red-carpet treatment by the Chinese, a vivid demonstration of this tendency was visible. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who has proven both more realistic in outlook and more principled in defence of democracy, was sidelined in China.

She was with Macron for part of his trip but was not given the prominence that the French president was in proceedings, or in subsequent write-ups in the Chinese state media. No doubt this had something to do with her statement that the use of force against Taiwan would be “unacceptable”.

The prize French pig – deeply happy with itself – was proudly exhibited instead. But Macron does not realise that for all the pageantry, when the banquet begins, the pig will be sacrificed in the end.

Professor Azeem Ibrahim is executive chair of the Scotland Institute and director of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy



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