Among the French business executives travelling to Beijing with President Emmanuel Macron, the mood was cautiously sanguine on the thawing post-pandemic trade prospects with China, with some rejecting American-led calls for ‘decoupling’.
Macron travelled to China with a 50-strong delegation of business leaders including the CEOs of Airbus, Alstom and EDF, raising eyebrows among some diplomats that this could blur the message of firmness the West wants to send at a time of heightened tension between Beijing and the United States.
In the French embassy’s gardens, where Macron addressed the French community on Wednesday evening, the president’s rejection of what he called an “inescapable spiral” of tension that would lead to cutting off ties with China was broadly welcomed.
“It’s very good that the president came. It shows the business community is supported by the president, it’s very important vis-Ã -vis the Chinese authorities,” Thierry de la Tour d’Artaise, chairman of French appliance group SEB, told Reuters.
“People don’t know this country well, a lot of the things being said are untrue,” he said. “I don’t think the Americans ask for our opinion when they travel here, so it’s very good for France to do its own things and bear responsibility for it.”
His company, which sells wok pans, blenders and rice cookers under the Supor brand name, is the leader in small kitchen appliances in China, he said.
The size of Macron’s business delegation was criticised by some commentators, though.
“Three-quarters of the delegation are business leaders: the goal is first and foremost to sign contracts,” Raphael Glucksmann, a left-wing member of the European parliament, wrote on Twitter ahead of Macron’s visit.
“At a time the debate in Europe focuses on our suicidal dependency on China and Chinese interference, the message is inopportune,” he said.
But asked by Reuters whether there was any contradiction between European leaders’ call to “de-risk” their relationship with China and his major business offensive, Macron himself rejected this argument.
“Strategic autonomy doesn’t mean autarky,” Macron said after the speech at the embassy.
France had been cautious not to let its strategic telecoms operators and energy providers fall under non-European ownership, but there were still business opportunities in sectors where national security was not a risk, such as agriculture, Macron said.
“It’s the difference between de-risking and decoupling,” he said.
Operating in China still presented challenges for French businesses, China-based French expats said.
“They’re pushing us to transfer technology and we refuse. It’s a game of cat and mouse, but we still manage to do great things,” a Beijing-based engineer working for French aerospace company Safran told Reuters.
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