Between Beijing and Paris: From Abnormally Good to More Normal

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 15

Since moving into the Elysee Palace in May, President Nicolas Sarkozy has implemented significant changes in France’s economic and domestic policies. France’s turbulent relationship with the United States is expected to improve as Sarkozy seeks to rejuvenate trans-Atlantic relations. Given that France’s other foreign policy priorities are likewise being reevaluated, some have begun to question whether France’s relationship with China—unusually cordial during the previous administration of the self-styled “Lifelong China Addict” President Jacques Chirac—will also witness a change in direction [1].

Soon after Sarkozy’s election, Chinese President Hu Jintao called to congratulate his new French counterpart by telephone and invited Sarkozy to visit China later in the year. In reference to Sarkozy’s 2004 visit to China in his capacity as French interior minister, Hu referred to him as a “respected old friend of the Chinese people.” Sarkozy responded in kind, saying, “You have had the courtesy to say that I am an old friend of China. I will demonstrate this to you. We will speak about all subjects with friendship, but also with frankness. I will visit China, and I wish to have conversations with the Chinese leaders that are trustful, regular and friendly” (Xinhua, May 23). Two weeks later, Sarkozy and Hu met at the “Outreach Session” of the G-8 Summit where, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the two leaders practiced the rituals and protocols that had been standardized during the twelve years of Chirac’s rule, exchanging views on the deepening of the global strategic Sino-French partnership [2].

Looking Back

France and China have enjoyed a long “special relationship,” which started in the 1960s when a number of countries began to question Washington’s non-recognition policy toward Beijing. At the time, France, under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, decided to reassert its role as an independent world power. In the early 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong revived his “United Front” on foreign policy in which he welcomed developed intermediate countries to join China in opposing the bipolar hegemonic world of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. These complimentary interests became the basis for France’s recognition of China in 1964. The relationship soon stalled, however, after China descended into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, which paralyzed its foreign policy for decades.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic liberalization of China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Sino-French relations began to recover, though not without significant hurdles. In 1992, France’s sale of Mirage fighters and La Fayette-class frigates to Taiwan resulted in China’s retaliatory closure of the French consulate in Guangzhou, and the bilateral relationship was placed on hold for the next two years. When neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac assumed the presidency in 1995, he sought to repair and bolster France’s relations with China, which would play a prominent role in Chirac’s anti-hegemony policy directed toward the remaining superpower, the United States.

Over the next several years, the Sino-French relationship became considerably stronger, as evidenced by China’s own bilateral partnership with France, predating the one with the EU by six years. The partnership was agreed upon in a joint declaration, signed by Chirac during his first presidential visit to China in 1997 and included the following objectives: political, economic and cultural rapprochement between China and France; reinforcement of multipolarity; reform of the United Nations; promotion of disarmament; protection of the environment; and support for multilateral trade. In 2004, during Hu’s visit to France, the two sides signed a declaration to deepen the “Franco-Chinese strategic global partnership in order to promote a safer world characterized by greater solidarity and respect for diversity” [3]. The 1997 term “multipolarity,” which connotes a coordinated counterbalancing of the United States, was no longer used and was replaced by the more neutral phrase “common Franco-Chinese attachment to multilateralism” [4]. Another important new element in the document was that it declared the “global strategic Franco-Chinese strategic partnership as engraved in the heart of the Euro-Chinese relationship, which constitutes an important element on the international scene” [5].

Three months before, the Chinese had published the first detailed paper on their policy toward the EU. The final paragraph, “The Military Aspect,” was the most portentous—alarming Washington, dividing Europe and eventually deeply disappointing China. It stated, “China and the EU will maintain high-level military-to-military exchanges, develop and improve, step by step, a strategic security consultation mechanism, exchange more missions of military experts and expand exchanges in respect of military officers training and defense studies. The EU should lift its ban on arms sales to China at an early date so as to remove barriers to greater bilateral cooperation on defense industry and technologies” [6].

Chirac, seconded by then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, became a strong advocate of a precipitate lifting of the arms embargo. Exactly what Chirac stated to Hu Jintao is not known, though the Chinese were led to believe that Chirac would solve their arms embargo problem. Yet, Chirac and Schroeder soon realized that they did not have the support to act on such an assertion. The EU’s newly formed common security and foreign policy was still in an infant stage, and many of the member states were divided over lifting the arms embargo. Strong warnings from the United States regarding the matter also served to defeat Chirac and Schroeder’s efforts.

In spite of Chirac’s failure to deliver on the arms embargo issue, during his farewell presidential visit to China, the official party newspaper, the People’s Daily, wrote euphorically, “Of all the countries of the Americas and Europe, France is undeniably the closest to China. And President Chirac is one of the most significant Western leaders in relations with China.” The paper quoted French sources, saying that France, with the approach of the presidential elections, was determined to put in place mechanisms of dialogue and regular exchanges with China that would perpetuate the good relations between the two countries after the end of the mandate of the incumbent president (People’s Daily, October 26, 2006). In an interview with the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, Chirac no longer described the relationship as being aimed at a multipolar or multilateral world, but as a series of industrial strategic partnerships in the realm of aeronautics, nuclear energy, railways and other domains in which France has unrivalled experience. As an example, he mentioned the assembly line of the Airbus A320 in Tianjin, which would be operational in 2008 (Financial Times, October 26, 2006).

The New Sarkozy Era

The major question at hand is whether the unique relationship between France and China, as personified by Chirac, will survive and expand under the administration of Sarkozy. Apart from the reform of France’s stagnant economy, it seems that Sarkozy’s primary concerns are solidifying France’s relations with Europe and the United States. As opposed to the former Franco-German axis, Sarkozy favors a new leadership by an Anglo-French-German triangle. While Sarkozy subscribes to the Gaullist idea that Sino-French relations are important and are essential to build a more balanced, diverse world, he has expressed concern regarding China’s role in both the ongoing genocide in Darfur as well as Iran’s nuclear activities.

China and France, both major importers of Iranian oil, hold opposing views on U.S.-initiated sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program. Along with the EU, France has moved toward the U.S. position, while China opposes the use of any sanctions. On the issue of the Darfur genocide, Sarkozy and his energetic French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, have pressured China to utilize its clout in Khartoum to end the humanitarian catastrophe. Although China, as Sudan’s largest oil importer and arms supplier, had until recently taken an ambivalent stance on the situation in Darfur, Kouchner secured the cooperation of Beijing in setting up a troika of France, the United States and China, which convened a conference on the issue of Darfur in June.

On the sensitive issue of the arms embargo, Sarkozy, as opposed to Chirac, is unlikely to take the lead, but will leave the decision to the EU, so as not to damage France’s relations with the United States. As one academic noted, “Sarkozy may follow Merkel’s position in continuing the delay of lifting the arms embargo. But the core of Sino-French relationship is business. If one considers the huge economic attractions of China, especially orders for another set of big ticket items, Sarkozy has to consider the full picture of Sino-French relations” [7]. Indeed, Sarkozy’s actions thus far demonstrate that he has placed a priority on revitalizing the French economy. During his first two months in office, Sarkozy has shown that, in spite of his self-portrayal as an Anglo-Saxon-style liberal reformer, he maintains a Gaullist protectionist streak. He has proposed policies to protect France’s national industrial champions and depreciate the euro in order to promote France’s exports, while calling for the appreciation of the Chinese yuan. “If he deems it in France’s interest, he will play tough with China on anti-dumping and other trade disputes,” said a European diplomat.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy holds a relatively favorable view toward China, and during the presidential campaign, he rejected the rhetoric of centrist Francois Bayrou and socialist Segolene Royal to boycott the Beijing 2008 Olympics for its policy in Darfur. He is scheduled to visit China later this year and again in 2008 for the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Altogether, China is fairly confident that, apart from atmospherics and manageable squabbles, little will change in the relationship. “I don’t think there will be any retrogression, any cooling. The relationship will be stripped of the sentimentality and glowing rhetoric that Chirac brought to it and become more pragmatic and businesslike,” said Feng Zhongping, professor of European Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations [8]. Feng’s colleague Wang Zhaohui agreed with his assessments, stating, “France has always been the flag-carrier for Europe, working indefatigably for ever-closer relations between China and Europe” [9].


1. People’s Daily quotes a Chirac biography L’Inconnu de l’Elysee in which he says that he fell deeply in love with Chinese culture while just a child, available online at

2. Meeting between President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy [Rencontre entre le President Hu Jintao et le President francais Nicolas Sarkozy], available online at

3. See “State visit of Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China – Joint Franco-Chinese declaration,” January 28, 2004, available online at

4. It is noteworthy that Sarkozy and Hu used “multipolarity” again during their meeting in Heiligendamm.

5. China’s EU Policy Paper, October 2003,

6. Ibid.

7. Zhang Tiejun, “Sarkozy Will Inevitably Take Franco-Chinese Relations Serious,” available online at, May 8, 2007.

8. Author’s interview with Professor Feng Zhongping in Beijing on July 13, 2007.

9. Wang Zhaohui,