The Debate

What About Asia? The Hole in the French Presidential Election Debate

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The Debate

What About Asia? The Hole in the French Presidential Election Debate

Both Le Pen and Macron seem to have an almost complete lack of real understanding or interest in Asia.

What About Asia? The Hole in the French Presidential Election Debate
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The second round of the French presidential elections will take place on May 7, with two finalists who have drastically different visions of the world and the role of France in the international system. Emmanuel Macron, the maverick 39-year-old center-left candidate who a year ago was a relative unknown, is all for openness, inclusiveness and the positive role of globalization.  For Marine Le Pen, whose party, the National Front, is firmly anchored to the far right of the political spectrum, the stress is more on insularity, and protectionism. But if Macron distinguishes himself with his optimism, Marine Le Pen’s position echoes growing frustrations in a profoundly divided French society.

Both Le Pen and Macron however have one common point and that is an almost complete lack of real understanding or obvious interest in Asia. In that sense, they share a very traditional and outdated, quasi provincial, France-centered vision of the world. This lack of perspective beyond the borders of France and Europe reflects, of course, the very limited place of international concerns in general in the election campaign. As for Asia, distance — despite the fact that France is also a Pacific power — and an apparent lack of strategic urgency in comparison with the Middle East and the terrorist threat explains that deficit of interest.

Yet, Asia accounts for one-third of world trade. The economic growth of the region is less dynamic than it used to be, but it is still the main source of global growth. In the event of a sudden slowdown in China, the entire world economy, including that of France, would be affected.

It is also in Asia that the largest number of nuclear powers — including China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, plus Russia and the United States – are concentrated. Behind a façade of stability, it is also in this region that tensions, on the Korean peninsula of course, but also in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, between India and China or India and Pakistan, could rapidly lead to open conflicts. The overall strategic consequences of any conflicts involving major powers in the region would of course be massive; and the more so for France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with special obligations and no right to indifference. With the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula, the next president of France might very well have to urgently take the situation in Asia seriously.

In that context, the fact that the few references to Asia found in the programs of the candidates are based on clichés used to support a narrative with no connection with the most recent developments in the region is the most worrying. In spite of its major significance, Asia is more of a phantasm than a real object of consideration. François Fillon, who lost in the first round, was still using the threat of the unstoppable domination of Chinese currency when in reality, the trend since 2015 has been a sharp decline in the internationalization of the yuan.

The temptation to prolong the trends of economic and investments growth, without taking into account a more contrasted reality which is beginning to be felt in the global economic system, also leads the candidates to focus almost exclusively on China when Asia is mentioned. Indeed, China plays a major role in Asia, but at least as much as a factor of destabilization as an economic opportunity. This complex dimension however, is not taken into account.

There are references to China in the programs and some of the declarations of the two finalists. For Macron, it is the necessity to cooperate with China, on security, trade and the environment – a reminder of the COP 21 agenda, which had been a major event of the Hollande presidency – stressing however the need to “rebalance” the relationship.  

At the same time, just as in the United States of President Donald Trump, China also serves as a scapegoat, responsible for the deindustrialization and social break-up in France.  It is Le Pen who has the most developed arguments on these issues. In her intervention at the European parliament in 2016, to oppose market economy status for China, she made references to the important question of the very real overcapacity problem in the Chinese economy. China is fully incorporated into her denunciation of the negative effects of globalization. Le Pen, however, does share with Beijing – and Moscow – the same hostility to interference in Syria and American unilateralism.

For both candidates, China seems to sum up the whole of Asia. However, albeit very succinctly, Macron made some references to other issues in the region. The continuity with  Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian, who very early expressed his support and built a positive image by traveling every year to Asia, as well as the importance of arms trade for France, does explain the very welcomed mention of India — called in Macron’s program “France first strategic partner in Asia”–  as well as his references to Australia and the tensions in the South China sea. In Le Pen’s program on the contrary, mentions of strategic issues in the region are completely nonexistent.

For both candidates, the absence of any mention of Japan is embarrassing. Japan is the number three world economic power. More significant, it remains the first Asian investor in France. Japan is also confronted with major strategic challenges, and expects a lot from France as a global power. In the Japanese media, French elections make headlines and if one follows the reaction of the stock market after the results of the first round, Macron is the favorite candidate. After the Brexit, Japan’s economic circles do not favor a French version of Frexit that would lead to a complete break out of the European Union. For the moment however, Japan’s preoccupation, and the complexities of evolving balance of powers in Asia are very far from the priority topics of the two candidates.

Valerie Niquet is head of the Asia program at the Foundation for Strategic Research and a senior visiting research fellow, JIIA.

The positions expressed in this paper do not represent the positions of FRS or JIIA.