French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a staunch supporter of the EU and therefore a potential darling of Beijing, attends a campaign rally in Arras on April 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a staunch supporter of the EU and therefore a potential darling of Beijing, attends a campaign rally in Arras on April 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Chinese leaders probably sighed with relief after the victory of liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday. The former economy minister and close aide to outgoing President Francois Hollande is now the favorite to win the May 7 run-off against nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen.

Macron presents himself as a champion of globalization, free markets and multilateralism. He is also a staunch supporter of the European integration project. These political positions make him a potential darling of Beijing, which is engaging the European Union to form a common front against anti-globalist and protectionist forces.

In China’s calculus, the EU should become a key pole of the multipolar world that the Asian giant is committed to develop. Le Pen advocates multipolarism as well, but she imagines an autonomous role for France in the new global order designed by the Chinese government.

China knows well that European nation-states are geopolitical midgets outside the EU umbrella, and the emergence of a fragmented Europe is not in its interest. Beijing is a trading powerhouse and needs a reliable economic and security partner to balance possible anti-systemic and unilateral moves by the United States under President Donald Trump; the European grouping could serve the purpose, provided it keeps its unity.

Between convergence and divergence

Macron shares China’s view of what role the EU should have on the world stage. The leader of the En Marche! (On the Move!) movement believes that the United Kingdom will become a marginal partner to China if it completes Brexit, its proposed exit from the EU. For him, London will be unable to face the Chinese trade competition once it is out of the European commercial bloc.

Further, in an interview with French radio station RFI in March, Macron underlined the importance of the partnership between the EU and China in fighting terrorist organizations, tackling climate change and fostering peace across the globe.

Scratch the surface, however, and Macron appears less in sync with Beijing. Like the majority of EU leaders, he thinks China’s steel overcapacity is a big problem for European countries. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last year, he also questioned the accuracy of China’s economic-growth statistics, saying they were overstated for domestic political consumption – a practice that has contributed to making world financial markets more volatile.

However, that is nothing compared with the many points of friction that the Chinese leadership could have with Le Pen. The leader of the far-right National Front is against the EU and globalization and in favor of protectionist policies to safeguard French workers and industries. She has often lambasted companies moving production outside France to low-wage markets like China, promising to slap a 35% tax on goods from producers that relocate abroad.

Potential security differences

In contrast, China could look favorably on Le Pen’s apparent disinterest in East Asian affairs. Macron has so far said little or nothing about France’s future strategy in the Pacific Rim. It is worth remembering that the overseas dependencies of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, with their extensive economic exclusive zones, make Paris a legitimate player in the region.

There are hints, however, that Macron could follow on the heels of Hollande, who has striven to preserve the country’s status as a Pacific power during his mandate.

In his program, Macron maintains that tensions in Southeast Asia, along with instability in the Middle East and Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, are making the world more uncertain and dangerous. He proposes to raise the defense budget to 2% of gross domestic product by 2025 to strengthen and modernize the French army within the framework of an upgraded European common defense.

As well, the French presidential frontrunner is backed by Socialist Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who refused to side with his own party’s presidential candidate Benoit Hamon. Le Drian is one of the most senior government figures; last year, he urged the EU to launch “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea – where China is locked in territorial disputes with a number of neighbors – in coordination with the French navy, the only European naval force with a Pacific-wide military projection.

Despite their possible differences on some security issues, there is prospective common ground between the Chinese dragon and Macron. China wants a stable and strong European Union and Macron is the French presidential candidate who can contribute to it – just as  Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have done in recent years, at least in the eyes of Beijing.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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