France serves as a bridge between the West and China

People gather on the streets of Paris waving Chinese and French national flags to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping in Paris on May 5, 2024. Photo: cnsphoto

People gather on the streets of Paris waving Chinese and French national flags to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping in Paris on May 5, 2024. Photo: cnsphoto

Editor’s Note:

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Paris on Sunday for a state visit to France. How should the significance of this visit as well as the uniqueness of China-France relations be viewed? To what extent can Europe become independent from the US? Global Times (
GT) reporters Ma Ruiqian and Qian Jiayin talked to French entrepreneur Laurent Michelon (
Michelon), author of the book Understanding the relation between China and the West (Comprendre la relation Chine-Occident), on these issues.

GT: This is President Xi’s first trip to Europe in five years. How do you view the significance of this visit? 

Michelon: I think the fact that President Xi visits France in May, just a year after French President Emmanuel Macron came to Beijing, is a significant sign of the strength of the relationship between France and China.

Historically, French presidents have always been very friendly toward China, and you can tell that the Chinese president returns the same friendship to France. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France. As we know, France was the first major Western country to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1964, under General Charles de Gaulle, who was a friend of China. 

GT: President Xi once mentioned the “China-France spirit,” featuring independence, mutual understanding, foresight, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. How do you view the uniqueness of China-France relations? 

Michelon: I agree with what President Xi said about the spirit of the China-France relations because both countries historically are very independently-minded. I think China appreciates having France as a member of the Security Council of the UN. France can still have a kind of mediating voice between China, Russia and the other Western countries. France was the first major Western country to establish a relationship with China and it served as a bridge between the West and China.

GT: How do you view the importance of trade cooperation between China and Europe, including China-France trade?

Michelon: In Europe, the media always broadcasts anti-China sentiment. But if you look at the flow of investments, it’s still going from Europe to China. European companies are still investing massively in China. This is even more obvious in Germany. We saw that when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz came to China, he came with the leaders of big companies. 

French companies are also extremely keen on investing more in China. China is making itself more welcoming to foreign investment, especially from European countries. The administrative hurdles are being lowered. If we look at the interviews given by the leaders of big French or German companies, they are all very bullish on the relationship between Europe and China.

The EU has been increasingly vocal about its “de-risking” policy toward China, and has insisted it is different from the US’ “decoupling.” This is a battle of semantics that basically means “to de-sinicize” the West’s supply chain. What this rhetoric shows above all is that the Collective West is becoming increasingly protectionist in the face of serious competition from China. 

The EU, with its poor geopolitical choices of siding with the US at its own risk, is now entirely cut from cheap Russian energy, has high inflation, and thinks it can solve the problem by importing millions of illegal immigrants rapidly trained into low-skilled low-paid workers. These erratic policies are obviously failing, and EU corporations have no choice but to either move to the US to take advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act, or invest more than ever in China, which many French and German companies do. 

For European corporations, “de-risking” means getting out of the EU for the sake of competitiveness and survival, and thus investing more, not less in China. European corporations are now facing an investment-friendly China, but an EU government that is increasingly hostile, both to inward Chinese investment and to China-bound European investments. This will not end well for the EU.

GT: Do you believe that there is currently a sense of camp confrontation in the world? How do the tensions between China and the US affect the current situation and prospects of China-EU and China-France cooperation? 

Michelon: There is definitely a camp mentality in the West, and this is largely driven by the US, which has long maintained a policy toward its allies of you’re either with us or against us. The US does not respect neutral countries. It’s always trying to bend the arms of European countries to side with it when it identifies a country as the enemy. And France has always been very reluctant to do that.

The relationship between the US and China is worsening because the US is clearly identifying China as its next target. We can see that with how Ukraine has been instrumentalized against Russia. Now, we can see that some countries like the Philippines are being instrumentalized against China. The US is already starting to ask its allies in Europe, including France, to position themselves against China. That has been detrimental to French interests and has been very detrimental to the relationship between France and China. 

GT: France emphasizes “strategic autonomy.” To what extent do you think Europe can become independent from the US? How do you assess the prospects for Europe’s strategic autonomy?

Michelon: During his return flight to France after visiting China last year, President Macron was interviewed on the plane and stated that the EU must reduce its dependency on the US to develop some kind of “strategic autonomy.” That sounds very good, but I think the first thing that French people expect from President Macron would be for him to speak in the name of France and not of the EU. In France, people would have preferred to have strategic autonomy for France. 

Unfortunately, the EU is a government that follows the US blindly. European countries don’t have much freedom to say no. I would say the EU is a tool of the US; it is the economic arm of NATO. You could also say, on the left hand, the US has NATO, and on the right hand, the US has the EU. China is trying not to overreact to the many mistakes France has made in its foreign policy toward it. Because I think China understands what is going on in Europe right now; the US is exerting extreme pressure on European governments to follow the US. 

Some Southern European countries, such as France, Italy and Spain, are very reluctant to side with the US and are trying to find all kinds of ways to keep a good relationship with China. For example, Italy was the first country in Western Europe to join the Belt and Road Initiative, although it was recently forced by the US to leave the BRI. They have a very pragmatic government. They know where their interest lies, and obviously, it is in having a good relationship with China. I trust that the Italian government will find other ways to maintain a good relationship with China. 

The same with France. I would say the independent spirit of France has kind of disappeared for the past 20 years, but it can always come back because it is in the French spirit to become independent again from this North American influence. We might hear some rhetoric in the media following the US’ direction, but on the ground, trust French people, French companies, and even a lot of people in the French administration to figure out ways to keep a good relationship with, and not upset, China. 

GT: Your book Understanding the relation between China and the West will soon be published in May. Could you briefly introduce your work? How should the negative narrative about China in the West be addressed?

Michelon: My book has been well received in France when I looked at the comments about my book. Many people are saying that finally somebody is giving us some factual information about China. So I think this was something people were waiting for and they are quite happy with it.

The first part of my book systematically addresses the Western narrative about China, from Xinjiang and Xizang, to Hong Kong and Taiwan. It puts things into perspective by showing how Western media has often lied, omitted details, or distorted reality to peddle a negative narrative about China. 

The second part of the book explains the principles of Chinese diplomacy, demonstrating that, based on Chinese philosophy, China has always been looking for a position that is far from the extremes. It never sides with one camp or another, it does not have this kind of Western alliance mentality. For example, China doesn’t have an alliance with Russia, but more of a strategic partnership, which means both countries remain completely independent from each other.

I’m explaining to the Western audience that China is always looking for a very central position, as neutral as possible, never interfering in the internal affairs of other countries and things like that. It probably is nothing new to Chinese people, but for Western people, it’s very interesting to figure out that China is very different from what they hear in the Western media. Many people in the West admit that they know there’s something wrong in the media, but they lack other sources of positive, or even neutral, information. That’s why I wrote my book. 

I always tell people: come to China and see for yourself. Now, you don’t even have the excuse of needing a visa; China has implemented a visa-free policy for many European countries, including France. China has always been very welcoming toward foreigners, whether tourists, investors, or businessmen.

Follow Michelon on X @LH_86_