The protocol for Xi Jinping’s visit to France has placed great attention on the past. In fact, 50 years have passed since diplomatic relations were restored between the two countries and the event was celebrated with the expected rhetoric. Xi even visited President De Gaulle’s private office, who had the acute foresight to break China’s isolation from the western world. At the time, only the Scandinavian countries in Western Europe had official relationships with the nascent People’s Republic of China. The recognition was therefore limited to the Communist Block and the few countries fighting hard to win their national independence. As impossible as it seems today, most countries recognized the Republic of Taiwan as the legitimate representative of China’s entire territory. For Italy, this eccentric situation lasted until 1971 (the year China was admitted to the United Nations and Taiwan was expelled), and until 1980 for the United States. France was the first to break this bizarre diplomacy and China still recognizes the significance of their deep friendship.
As frequently happens, strikingly different ideologies didn’t create obstacles for the reconciliation. Beijing needed to relax the international pressure that had excluded it from receiving developmental stimuli. Paris intended to use the Chinese card to reaffirm its own grandeur. China was surrounded by enemies. The Soviet Union wouldn’t guarantee protection, the memories of the Korean and Indian wars hadn’t even begun to heal. The immense country was poor, backward, and besieged. France was a safety valve. It was the era of cultural power and French military politics in Europe that De Gaulle didn’t intend to sacrifice to multilateralism. One remembers the opposition to Great Britain’s entry into the new European Common Market, the exit from NATO’s political command (and its transfer to Brussels), and the insistence on “Europe of Nations” rather than a communal Europe. China’s opening was instrumental to this goal, at the same time a farsighted and nationalistic strategic approach. France’s respect for China’s diversity was advantageous and probably sincere. De Gaulle didn’t skimp on criticisms or detachment from France’s superiority toward non-allied countries. Even today the sarcasm during the mid-60s is memorable: “Brazil is a country of great hope and will always remain so.”
Today, De Gaulle’s vision and power make his successors blanch. China is cajoled and feared. The Elysee is searching for a business friendship with China: investments in France, imports from China, and international cooperation. In reality, they’re attempting to recover lost ground. Chinese investments are growing but are still minimal. Ceding assets stopped wounding national pride only a short time ago. Exports to China are languishing. France is China’s 17th largest supplier, ahead of the UK and Italy, but very far from Germany (that exceeds its export value almost four fold). Now, France is trying to add value to its leading sectors: defense, nuclear energy, automotive, luxury, and food & wine. Nostalgia will certainly help, but the most mundane market conditions will sanction the right results of their expectations.