China Ink

Macroleon complex

French President Emmanuel Macron has shown a keen interest in symbolism and grand gestures. How did the media decode the diplomatic messages sent from his first state visit to China?


Did his ‘horse diplomacy’ work?

Foreign press: It is the first time France has offered as gift one of the elite cavalry horses of the French Republican Guard, Reuters reports, and it was given because President Xi Jinping had expressed his fascination with the 104 horsemen who escorted him during his last visit to Paris in 2014. The surprise present was also a response to China’s ‘panda diplomacy’, after Macron’s wife Brigitte became the godmother of a Chinese panda lent by Beijing to a zoo near Paris. Meanwhile, French newspaper Le Monde also noted the three characters in Macron’s Chinese name: Ma-Ke-Long would translate into something like “horse vanquishes dragon”.

State media has stayed largely muted about Macron’s gift. Hong Kong media, on the contrary, has been enthusiastically discussing why the French president has offered a horse. HK01 notes that ‘horse diplomacy’ has a long history in France. TVB News suggests a horse is always a symbol of power and wealth, but counters too that the offering of such a “super gift” could look like a sign of submission and loyalty. Apple Daily believes Xi won’t be too impressed because it is a gelding. (Meanwhile, many Chinese internet users are also curious about where Xi will keep the steed, which is named Vesuvius, after the famed volcano that erupted in the year 79 AD.)

Is Macron embracing One Belt, One Road?

Foreign press: The AFP agrees that Macron’s decision to start his China trip in Xi’an, the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, was an attempt to send a signal that Europe should join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Multilateralism is strongly supported by both France and China, though “Macron also warned of “a new hegemony” and emphasised to Beijing during his visit “These roads are to be shared and they cannot be one-way.” He also made a point of stating that “Europe is back” – a strong hint to Xi not to view the EU as weak.

The Xinhua news agency notes that when Xi embarked on his first state visit to France in 2014, the Chinese leader started the trip at Lyon, which was also a key destination on the ancient Silk Road. As such, Macron’s decision to start his trip at Xi’an also carried a much more symbolic meaning, it said, than merely going to see the Terracotta Warriors. Meanwhile, the Global Times also suggested Macron could seek to inject new momentum into European integration by aligning France and the European Union more with China’s BRI investment plans.

The Trump factor?

Foreign press: During his three-day trip Macron poured praise on China’s commitment to multilateral trade agreements and the Paris Climate Accord. He even delivered a short video on Twitter showing himself learning the Mandarin pronunciation of “make our planet great again”, which was the Frenchman’s a tongue-in-cheek jab at Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Such a gesture, CNN noted, was likely to delight Xi, who has tried to position himself as a leader in the fight against climate change.

The Global Times believes the video showing Macron grappling with Mandarin has endeared him to the Chinese people. Meanwhile, “constructing a community of common destiny with mankind”, a catchphrase in Xi’s keynote speech during the 19th Party Congress late last year, has become a recurring term in the state media’s coverage of Macron’s visit. Amid a rising tide of protectionism, Xinhua says Macron will “well understand that China is the natural partner to join hands with” as he tries to build a stronger and united Europe.

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