Mariano Caucino

Macron in China and De Gaulle´s Legacy

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after meeting the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Thursday, April 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool)
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after meeting the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Thursday, April 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool)

Returning from a state visit to the People´s Republic of China, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Europe should avoid becoming a “vassal” and being drawn into conflict between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan.

His words were interpreted as he was distancing himself from France´s traditional membership of the Western alliance. An extreme that seemed to be confirmed when Macron stated that the bloc should not entangle on foreign crisis.

French President´s comments seem to risk his links with the US and highlight divisions among European Union members over the strategic issue of how to approach China when the US simultaneously faces both Beijing and Moscow.

Events take place during a particular stage on global affairs. The one that unfolds when the war in Ukraine stretches out for more than a year with no possible solution in sight and with the prospect of becoming a virtually indissoluble conflict. At the same time that an eventual incident in the always disturbing scenario of the Taiwan Strait cannot be fully ruled out. And when the Chinese hierarchs have just achieved an objectively relevant diplomatic triumph by bringing the hitherto irreconcilable Iran and Saudi Arabia closer together.

“The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must be followers and adapt ourselves to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction”, Macron said after a three-day state visit to Beijing.  The French head of state reiterated his ideal proposal of EU “strategic autonomy” while he reminded that while “we must be clear where our views overlap with the US, but whether it´s about Ukraine, relations to China or sanctions, we have a European strategy”.

“We don’t want to get into a bloc versus bloc logic”, the French leader added, saying Europe “should not be caught up in a disordering of the world and crisis that aren´t ours”.  The events took place when the CCP Politburo reacted indignantly to a new visit by the Taiwan President to the US, in this case in order to meet with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif). A development that once again aroused irritation in Beijing, to the point of responding with a deployment of a massive military exercise around the island.

But Macron´s attitude has to be considered in light of France´s own national history. Perhaps responding to a French tradition, Macron was able to show a position with a degree of autonomy according with someone who finally presides over a Nation that refuses to leave the front line of world events.

Following Charles de Gaulle´s example, the Elysee´s chief interpreted that Europe cannot limit its global performance to a simple secondary actor or accessory of Washington.  During his tenure in power, De Gaulle deployed a policy commonly interpreted as of an excessive zeal around national pride that would lead him to controversial decisions. Such as the remembered “No” to the United Kingdom entry into the European Common Market or the French (partial) withdrawal from NATO in 1966.

At the height of the Mao era, Gaulle restored diplomatic relations with China. More precisely at early 1964, in circumstances that angered the Johnson Administration and marked another milestone in the French´s hero complex relationship with the US. As it is known, the General could not conceive France except in the exercise of a global role according to its glorious past, while he saw his country as a power destined to balance the two blocks of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, a French government source recalled that the preservation of an independent European geostrategic position has been one of the main objectives of Macron’s foreign policy since he came to power in 2017. An attitude he has deepened since German Chancellor Angela Merkel´s retirement in 2021, making him virtually the most relevant UE leader in recent years. To the point of trying, -until the last moment and concurrently with Merkel´s successor Olaf Scholtz- a negotiation with Vladimir Putin to avoid the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis and the subsequent rupture of the Russian-European economic cooperation axis that followed Moscow´s invasion to Ukraine in February 2022. As long as he and many Europeans understand that the breakdown of that relationship constitutes a serious blow to EU long-term interests since it increases its dependence on the US.

But as some realists warned, Macron´s legitimate pretension to play a global role probably face -in the present historical circumstances- the limits of the material possibilities of his country.  Nevertheless, Macron pursued to rise the voice of a European feeling consistent on a vocation for the exercise of an independent policy in the midst of the growing rivalry strategy between Washington and Beijing.

A claim that will undoubtedly test the political and diplomatic capacity of the President of the French Republic, who will have to reconcile the requirements of his belonging to the Western alliance with the aspiration of seeking a major global role.

While he might take the risk of being classified as an antagonist of the desires of the still most powerful nation on earth. In a circumstance that allows us to evoke the words of the American representative to the Elysée in the 1960s, the legendary Ambassador Charles “Chip” Bohlen. When asked about De Gaulle, he assured that under no circumstances he could be considered anti-American. To simply explain that he was just pro-French.

About the Author
Mariano Caucino was Argentine ambassador to Israel (2018-2019) and to Costa Rica (2016-2017).
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