During its term Paris will have to navigate transitions in digital and green policies by concluding the legislative processes of the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. It will also develop the Commission’s climate policy proposals package Fit for 55 and the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which has been criticized by several of the bloc’s partners, including China. The EU’s global standing and its economic security depend on the success of these policies.
Paris’ international agenda will seek to mold and energize the EU’s common foreign and security policy through seeking consensus over the EU’s Strategic Compass, an attempt to improve coordination of member states’ foreign and defense policies.
Relations with the Indo-Pacific and Africa will be at the heart of the Presidency’s foreign policy ambitions. The two regions are top of the preliminary agendas of the upcoming meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and will be the focus of dedicated events in February: the EU-African Union Summit and a ministerial forum that will bring together European and Indo-Pacific partners.
The overarching goal appears to be to give the EU a greater sense of agency and to shape a more coordinated, confident and assertive European bloc. Still, the impressive level of ambition present in the French agenda must be taken with a pinch of salt as it is undoubtedly being used to strengthen Emmanuel Macron’s presidential re-election bid.
The China-element in the foreign policy agenda
France is notably one of the most US-skeptic actors in the EU, something Beijing will see as an opportunity to distance the EU from the US. Overall, Paris appears to take a softer approach towards China. Economic relations between the two are often overlooked. France has acted smarter than others. For example, in March 2019, when Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative, France signed a total of 15 deals, one being an Airbus deal worth EUR 30 billion. Despite their size and involvement of key sectors like transport, France’s agreements did not receive the same amount of criticism that Italy’s smaller and less concrete agreements did.
There are areas of potential friction with China in the French Presidency’s agenda. One area is Africa. The continent plays an important role both for the EU and China. Ursula von der Leyen's French Presidency inauguration speech highlights that “it is a geopolitical, economic and demographic space that will be essential in tomorrow's world.” China has been taking an increasingly larger slice of that space by building close relationships with African countries, establishing a military base, fostering relationships with suppliers of raw materials and investing in the region’s infrastructures. These are all taken into consideration when the EU thinks about its future relationship with the continent.
Paris will seek to address security issues in the Indo-Pacific region while also developing connectivity cooperation through the Global Gateway initiative. The Presidency program highlights plans to pursue this direction in parallel to deepening its dialogue with the US “concerning China and the Indo-Pacific region”. France’s drive for larger engagement with the area amplifies potential frictions with China, which has already signaled that it does not view more active Western presence in the area favorably.
Furthermore, Paris’ ability in its role of EU President to handle the Sino-Lithuanian crisis on the Eastern flank of the EU will be an important indicator of its approach to China. It will define how well positioned Paris really is to shape a common European China policy.
French presidency does not guarantee warmer relations with Beijing
China hopes for a US-skeptic French leadership of the EU and if such hopes come to fruition, Beijing is likely to be open to and engage with any goodwill emanating from Paris. This has the potential to create a platform for constructive EU-China engagement in the beginning of 2022.
But items on the agenda such as engagement in the African continent and the Indo-Pacific strategy may limit such expectations. Beijing’s expectations may not be met, and how Paris chooses to coordinate its response to China’s economic coercion of Lithuania will inevitably influence the overall relationship. The unravelling of the tensions between Lithuania and China coupled with the Presidential elections in France are only two of the numerous developments that may still cause trouble.