Macron and Xi pledge unity at unprecedented Paris summit

Chinese president and EU leaders test the limits of their relationship at the Élysée Palace

On the last day of his state visit to France, Chinese president Xi Jinping met with president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, at an unprecedented summit at the Élysée Palace.

Mr Macron labelled the summit a "seminar on global governance" and it delivered multiple messages. Though he was never named, US president Donald Trump was the intended addressee of the paeons to multilateralism, the UN and international co-operation.

UN secretary general António Guterres responded to the summit by sending a statement rejoicing in Chinese and European commitment to “strong and efficient multilateralism, which places the UN at its centre”.

A seven-page joint declaration by France and China contained other messages for Mr Trump. It highlighted the two countries' will "to confront together the challenges of climate change, the erosion of biodiversity and protection of the environment".


It reaffirmed both countries' commitment to the Paris accord on climate change and the nuclear agreement with Iran, both of which Mr Trump has renounced. It also called for improvements to "world economic governance" centred on the World Trade Organisation, another body which Mr Trump disparages.

By bringing the three most important leaders in the EU together with Mr Xi, Mr Macron wanted to symbolise the power of Europe, and partially compensate for the imbalance between China, with 1.4 billion inhabitants and a €12.24 trillion GDP, and France, with fewer than 70 million citizens and a GDP one-fifth of China's.

The European and Chinese leaders seemed to be testing the parameters of their relationship. The Europeans were wary. Mr Xi tried to reassure them.

“Co-operation is better than confrontation, and we have more to gain from opening than from being closed,” Mr Macron said.

European anxiety

The summit comes as EU leaders view some Chinese investments in Europe with anxiety, for example, the purchase by the Chinese Midea Group of leading German robot-maker Kuka.

The European Parliament adopted a screening method for investments in strategic sectors in Europe, which was aimed at China, last month. The parliament has now turned its attention to developing a method to ensure greater European access to Chinese markets.

“We want two-way silk routes,” Mr Macron said. “I would like European companies to find the same openness that Chinese companies do in Europe,” Mr Juncker added.

“We have our differences. None of us are naive,” Mr Macron continued. “But we respect China, and we naturally expect that our great partners respect the unity of the EU and the values that it represents.”

The French and Germans are also uneasy about the way Beijing hives off individual countries to enlist them in its giant Belt and Road Initiative on transport infrastructure. Mr Xi has focused on bilateral relations, signing an agreement with Italy and visiting Monaco last weekend. Relations with the EU have been entrusted to his far less powerful prime minister, Li Keqiang.

Mr Xi sought to reassure his European interlocutors. “Yes, there are points of disagreement,” he said at the conclusion of the summit. “But it is positive competition . . . We must foster respect and mutual confidence. We need less mistrust.”

‘Taming the dragon’

French media have made much of the fact that Makelong – the Chinese transcription of Mr Macron’s name – means “the horse that tames the dragon”. Yet Mr Xi’s European hosts seemed daunted by the sheer size of China, which is expected to replace the US as the world’s largest economy about 2030. “In 40 years, we have achieved what it took western countries three centuries to do,” Mr Xi boasted on Tuesday.

Fourteen large contracts were signed during Mr Xi's stay in Paris. The most important, for China to buy 300 Airbus aircraft, is worth an estimated €30 billion – almost as much as France's €32 billion trade deficit with China. That contract was also a message to Mr Trump, since Boeing lost out. Other contracts included agreements for French-built container ships and maritime wind turbines.

In their joint declaration, Mr Macron and Mr Xi promised to “promote the protection of human rights and fundamental liberties in conformity with the United Nations charter”. About 500 exiles staged a demonstration at the Trocadéro on Monday to protest at China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs, Tibetans and members of Falun Gong. Up to one million Uighurs are held in “re-education camps” in the country.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times