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Xi begins Europe tour in Paris as Macron seeks to reset ties

Xi begins Europe tour in Paris as Macron seeks to reset ties
Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan disembark upon their arrival at Orly airport in Paris on May 5. (Photo: Michel Euler/AFP/Getty Images)

President Xi Jinping has arrived in France to begin talks aimed at stabilising China’s relationship with Europe, as he tries to perform damage limitation on trade ties with the key bloc.

The Chinese leader shook hands with French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal after landing in Paris on Sunday, in his first visit to the European Union in five years. He’ll also visit Serbia — which isn’t a member state of the bloc — and Hungary.

Xi’s tour comes as the EU forges a more unified voice with Washington in opposing China’s capacity for cheap exports and perceived national security risks. Distrust toward Beijing in Brussels is growing, exemplified by a recent flurry of arrests of alleged Chinese spies and a salvo of trade actions.

In an article published by French outlet Le Figaro on Sunday, Xi pledged to deepen cooperation with France on innovation and green development. China welcomes “more quality French farm products and cosmetics to the Chinese market”, he added, naming two areas where Beijing has some leverage to respond to tariffs.  

Xi’s two-day visit to France is perhaps his most important stop during his first trip abroad this year. While French President Emmanuel Macron criticised China’s cheap exports in an interview over the weekend, he also called for a reset of ties with the world’s No. 2 economy and advocated for European autonomy, giving Beijing some space to court a key US ally.

The French leader will hold trilateral talks on Monday with Xi and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the architect of the bloc’s “derisking” policy of reducing economic dependence on China in key sensitive sectors. 

“I will encourage the Chinese government to address these overcapacities in the short-term,” she said in a statement ahead of talks with Xi. “At the same time, we will closely coordinate with G7 countries and emerging economies that are increasingly affected by China’s market distortions.”  

For his part, Macron aims to deepen his personal connection with Xi, taking him to a corner of the Pyrenees with childhood memories, as he appeals to the Chinese leader to urge President Vladimir Putin to end Russia’s war in Ukraine. Macron also seeks to entice Chinese spending into France’s EV battery sector.

The EU-China tensions over EVs will be front and centre of Xi’s five-day trip. Beijing has already responded to the bloc’s probe into its subsidies for EVs with a tit-for-tat liquor dumping investigation that could hurt French cognac makers. 

Xi’s visit coincides with two other sensitive events: Putin’s inauguration for a fifth term in office, and the 25th anniversary of the US bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade.

Read More: France Ramps Up Electric Vehicle Ambition as Xi Arrives in Paris

France has taken its own actions against China’s industrial prowess by restricting cash support for EV purchases to vehicles with the lowest carbon footprint in production — a move that de facto excludes many Chinese-made models. 

On Monday, the French government is also set to sign a wide-ranging pact with the automotive industry that sets new targets for electric vehicle sales. The contract also has a chapter on “ensuring our sovereignty” that includes stress-testing supply chains for critical materials.

Macron’s charm offensive this week will include hosting Xi for dinner at the Elysee Palace, the official residence of the French leader. Chinese state media reported that Xi received a “high-profile reception” at the airport in Paris on Sunday.

“Some Chinese companies have set up battery plants in France,” Xi said in his article in Le Figaro, which highlighted the benefits of the Asian nation’s investment abroad. “The Chinese government supports more Chinese companies in investing in France. And we hope that France will ensure that they operate in a fair and equitable business environment.”

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