60 years on: China and France work to untangle a promising future

Gloria Sand
France wants to maintain good relations with China while staying away from Washington's geopolitical moves against Beijing.
Gloria Sand

Sixty years after the formal commencement of diplomatic ties between China and France, French President Emmanuel Macron stated on January 27 in a video broadcast on the Élysée's X account that the two countries should continue to explore new methods to strengthen their partnership.

A statement suggesting that China and France can contribute to international peace and stability if they expand partnership through bilateral collaboration aimed at consolidating mutual understanding.

Following many geopolitical difficulties that foster distrust and suspicion rather than peace, the French president has chosen to center the anniversary celebration on culture as a way to enhance a flourishing friendship rather than relying on narratives and initiatives that are deemed too sensitive.

That's why, throughout this year, numerous French institutions, events and exhibitions will be mobilized to ensure the success of this milestone. Artists, writers, academics, entrepreneurs, tourists and students have all been encouraged to forge new linkages, establish new projects, and build relationships. Macron, in particular, emphasized the need for the growth of relations between Chinese and French youth.

Just like General Charles de Gaulle made the historic decision on January 27, 1964, to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China at a time when the world was confronted with an unrivaled logic of blocs, Macron now finds himself in the position of having to prevent this logic of blocks from taking over again. Now, as then, Macron and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, appear to agree that the two countries should continue to develop viable solutions to many global concerns.

This culture-driven passion appears to be the current response to de Gaulle's aspirations. On January 31, 1974, four days after China and France formalized official diplomatic ties, de Gaulle argued, "Who knows if the affinities that exist between the two nations for everything that relates to things of the spirit, taking into account the fact that they have, in their depths, mutual sympathy and consideration, will not lead to increasing cultural cooperation? That is, in any case, earnestly desired here."

At the time, cultural engagement was thought to be a precursor to political engagement, with the then-French leader arguing that "the specificity of China, its value and present needs, and the dimension of its future make it reveal itself increasingly to the interests and concerns of the entire world. For all of these reasons, it is evident that France must be able to hear China directly while simultaneously making itself heard."

Today, Macron is set to pursue a similar strategy to attain the same result.

Among the principal players named by the French president to inject energy into the Franco-Chinese Year of Cultural Tourism is the Palace of Versailles, which is organizing an exhibition in April on the exchanges between the two nations during the 18th century in Beijing. Other highlights include the ballet of the Bordeaux National Opera, the Comédie Française, the panorama of French cinema, and more musical comedies.

At the same time, the Peking Opera, the Forbidden City, the National Museum of Fine Arts of China, the Shanghai Museum, the National Museum of China, Beijing Design Week, and other Chinese cultural partners will head to France.

Although China and France don't share the same values in some aspects, they may both yet recognize how enriching it is to share their cultures.

The two leaders are undoubtedly aware that their countries share economic interests. China continues to be one of the top markets for the French industry's international flagships, whether they are in the agri-food, luxury, or aerospace sectors. France cannot therefore alienate its opportunities there.

French pragmatism, which seeks to preserve cultural and economic ties in the face of a highly politicized geopolitical environment, affirms that states' pursuit of their strategic goals is now almost invariably at variance with their economic interests. Within the strategic framework, specifically, the discussion between France and China is distinct from that of AUKUS and Washington, whose stance is purposefully aimed at confrontation.

To put it succinctly, France wants to remain cordial relations with China while keeping a greater distance from the geopolitical decisions made by Washington against Beijing. For this reason, President Macron is surely excited to have President Xi visit France in the coming months.

(The author is an independent researcher based in Paris. The views are her own.)

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