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French leader to play economic diplomacy card

China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-25 02:45

Francois Hollande's visit to China comes at the most difficult time for the French president since he was elected in May last year.

Hollande is facing an uphill battle at home, where a stagnant economy and a stubbornly high unemployment rate have driven his domestic approval rating to a record low of 26 percent.

The Socialist Party president must also confront the declining competitiveness and attractiveness of the French industrial sector, which is thirsty for fresh foreign investment.

Although France has been trying to play down expectations of any huge contracts being signed during the visit, economic diplomacy will clearly be the card Hollande plays when he meets China's top leaders.

Narrowing the trade and investment gap with China will be one of his priorities. France saw a trade deficit of 21 billion euros ($27.3 billion) with China last year, accounting for nearly 40 percent of its total trade deficit.

Because his government is under pressure to increase growth and jobs at home, Hollande will also underline the appeal of France as an investment destination for Chinese enterprises.

France is also seeking to deepen the partnership with China, which plays a key role in its overall strategic approach toward Asia.

Hollande places a much greater emphasis on Asia, where the stakes are increasingly crucial for France, than his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy did. Hollande has visited Asia three times and met at least 17 Asian heads of state since being elected, according to a senior French diplomat.

Vast potential

The timing of his visit to meet the new Chinese leaders so soon after they took office also reflects France's intention to raise its profile in the region and to seek better coordination with China on key international issues.

France seems well aware that it can be quite difficult for it to catch up with its European neighbor Germany when it comes to economic and trade relations with China.

But Paris clearly sees the vast potential of stronger cooperation with Beijing on key multilateral issues, as both China and France are members of the United Nations Security Council.

Deepening Sino-French coordination will therefore have far-reaching implications on some hot international topics such as nuclear issues with Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and the fight against terrorism in Africa.

"If you consider China a strategic global partner, then there is no reason to fear its growing role in Africa or Asia. It could be a new opportunity to develop new cooperation," the French diplomat said.

Sino-French relations were relatively unstable under Sarkozy. When Hollande was sworn in to office, he said he would be a "normal president". For his Chinese counterparts, normal sounds much better than unpredictable or irrational.

What China and France need is a trusting and effective high-level dialogue channel on a regular basis to facilitate better communication and to avoid unnecessary friction.

In fact, the two governments launched such a channel for strategic dialogue, without much publicity, over the French operation in Mali and used it to exchange views and discuss major concerns on the issue, the diplomat said.

What is certain is that there is a strong will on both sides to put Sino-French relations on a more stable, predictable and solid footing. Now it is up to the top leaders of the two countries to seize the opportunity and to elevate this relationship to a new level.

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