Macron's choice to welcome Xi suggests sincerity on constructive talks

Gloria Sand
With Chinese President Xi Jinping landing in Paris on his Europe tour, France seems to have paid lots of attention to implicit and symbolic messages in organizing the visit.
Gloria Sand

The long-awaited moment of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Europe has finally arrived. Xi landed in France on Sunday and will travel to Serbia and Hungary through the week.

For once, France paid lots of attention to implicit and symbolic messages in organizing the visit, thereby proving that Emmanuel Macron's staff have learned how much these details count in achieving constructive dialogue with China.

First, while trying to remain loyal to the idea of ​​guaranteeing a European dimension to the meeting, a multilateral discussion with Ursula von der Leyen, current president of the European Commission, has been scheduled for early Monday. This meeting is not the first one but the most important, because it will prove functional to break the ice and then allow both Xi and Macron to have more frank and direct exchanges afterwards.

Another detail that has not been highlighted is Macron's decision to invite Xi to a rather unusual venue for a state visit. The Chinese leader will be welcomed in Paris on Monday, but Tuesday's meetings have all been scheduled in the Hautes-Pyrénées, a district located on the borders of the Pyrenees, in the extreme southwest of the Occitanie region.

As soon as preparation for the visit began, Macron urged his advisers to identify ideas that could convey the same image of care and attention that the French president was offered in China in April 2023. Once Macron arrived in Beijing, Xi decided to take him to southern China for an enchanting tea ceremony at the residence of the governor of Guangdong Province, where his father Xi Zhongxun used to live when covering this position from 1978 to 1981.

After considering Marseille and Toulouse as potential locations for a second round of conversations outside Paris – the first for its historic connections to the local Chinese diaspora, while the second as a reminder of a very first bilateral agreement related to the acquisition of the airport in Toulouse in 2014 that Macron facilitated when he was minister of economy – the French president realized that none of these places was adequate to confirm to Xi his intention to continue to nurture a personal, intimate bilateral relationship.

Following his example, Xi will then visit the Col du Tourmalet, a location at a height of 2,115 meters in the southwest of France, offering a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. With the Paris Olympic Games approaching, this destination is also ideal because it is one of the most famous of the Tour de France routes.

Last but not the least, the ascension of the Col du Tourmalet begins right after the little town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where Macron's grandparents used to live, and where he spent many holidays as a child and beyond.

Beyond the symbolism of reciprocating the attention shown by Xi and the need to find a familiar, unusual place to discuss face to face some very delicate topics such as peace in Europe and the Middle East, the most relevant nuance behind this choice is a purely cultural one.

France is a country where private and professional lives are rarely mixed. It is a place where it is very uncommon, if not discouraged, to cultivate long-term friendship at work, especially deep and intimate ones. These two aspects are voluntarily kept separate. No one would talk about the weekend in the office on Monday morning, and often colleagues don't even know if their colleagues are married, have children, or are going through a particularly lucky or, on the contrary, difficult moment in their life.

In this context, Macron's choice to welcome Xi in a location that is so deeply connected with his personal life becomes even more relevant. Giving rise to hope that his claimed interest to renew the commitment to constructive dialogue is sincere.

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

Special Reports