By Michel Rose and John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – France and China planned to sign trade deals worth billions of euros on Monday during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping but Paris will also take the opportunity to push back against Beijing’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative.
President Emmanuel Macron wants to forge a united European front to confront Chinese advances in trade and technology. Xi’s visit also provided a stage for protesters seeking more European action over the alleged mistreatment of minorities in China.
After he and Xi meet later on Monday, the two will hold further talks on Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Union executive.
Xi arrived in France after visiting Italy, the first Western power to endorse China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative as Rome tries to revive its struggling economy.
The Belt and Road Initiative plan, championed by Xi, aims to link China by sea and land with Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, through an infrastructure network on the lines of the old Silk Road.
France says Silk Road cooperation must work in both directions.
“An awakening was necessary,” Macron said in Brussels on Friday. “For many years we had an uncoordinated approach and China took advantage of our divisions.”
An official in Macron’s office said significant progress was expected in terms of opening up the Chinese market for some farm goods, especially poultry. French officials have also voiced hope that a multi-billion dollar deal for China to buy dozens of Airbus planes could be finalised.
In a column in the French daily Le Figaro published on Sunday, Xi made clear he wanted Paris to cooperate in the Belt and Road project, calling for more trade and investment in sectors ranging from nuclear energy to aeronautics and farming.
“French investors are welcome to share development opportunities in China. I also hope that Chinese companies can do better in France and make a greater contribution to its economic and social development,” he wrote.
French officials describe China as a both a challenge and partner, saying France must remain especially vigilant over any Chinese attempts to appropriate foreign technology for its own purposes.
The EU is already weighing a more defensive strategy on China, spurred by Beijing’s slowness in opening up its economy, Chinese takeovers in critical sectors, and a feeling in European capitals that Beijing has not stood up for free trade.
As part of efforts to further that approach, Macron will play host Merkel and Juncker on Tuesday to meet with Xi to move away from a purely bilateral approach to ties.
“Macron is not happy to see China win so many prizes in Rome, so he has invented a bizarre European format by inviting Merkel and Juncker as a counterbalance to show that he is the driving force behind European integration,” said one Paris-based Asian diplomat.
Rights organisations also urged Macron not to skirt the subject of human rights in China, especially Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.
Several hundred demonstrators converged in central Paris on Monday with slogans protesting against the alleged mistreatment of China’s Muslim Uighurs and in defence of Tibet, 60 years after that region’s failed uprising against Chinese rule.
“Foreign officials have often justified not challenging Chinese leaders on human rights out of ostensible concern that they might ‘lose face,’” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“But President Macron should keep in mind that the faces that matter are those of the countless people wrongly imprisoned, tortured and persecuted by President Xi and his government.”
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier and Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich)