Focused on domestic issues and personal attacks, the ongoing French presidential election campaign presents (at least) two striking characteristics. First, the debates largely neglect foreign policy and dodge the role/responsibility of France in the current transformation of the world order. Second, the debate doesn’t even evoke the depth of such a global transformation, nor the best way to manage coming challenges for future generations. This is particularly true with regards to the Asia-Pacific, a region where France has recently shaped an effective and rewarding policy – and which based on its increasing influence presents massive consequences for France’s future position.
France’s stake in the region
It’s all well-known. The emergence of the Asia-Pacific as the main source of global growth, its economic power, its strategic mapping, its impact on global balances – from environment to military through demography – confirm a new distribution of power, probably new rules of the game and certainly massive consequences for France’s global position.
First, France desperately needs the Asia-Pacific region as a pole of potential economic expansion. The prosperity of France — the world’s fifth largest economic power and global exporter — is linked to Asian dynamism: trade with the Asia–Pacific rose from 14 percent of France’s non-EU trade in 1985 to 24 percent in 2000 and 32 percent in 2016 (or 16 percent of total trade). Furthermore, French direct investment in the region now exceeds US$80 billion, which is four times higher than Asian investment in France; France is the third largest foreign investor in Japan. These new interdependencies, better illustrated in the defense equipment market, create spill-over effects. Roughly 40 percent of the submarines sold to Southeast Asian countries come from France. French research capacities are also boosted as technological and industrial partnerships stimulate and challenge our innovation prowess.
Second, France has a major stake in regional stability. The Asia-Pacific region is not only the theater of major strategic competition for global security, it is also holds direct national security interests for France. With territories in the Indian (Mayotte and La Réunion) and the Pacific (New Caledonia, Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and Clipperton island) oceans, France is an Indo-Pacific power with 1.6 million citizens and the second largest Exclusive Economic Zone (after the United States) to protect. It is not only peripheral interests but primary, vital interests that are put at risk if a crisis occurs in this volatile region. This also explains why France is resolute in its efforts to protect the principle of freedom of navigation, among other things.
Third, global challenges facing humanity from cybersecurity to migration concern every country, every society, and every individual as some trajectories of jihadi terrorist fighters remind us. Born somewhere, educated elsewhere, connected to their networks, terrorists consider Asia, Europe or the Americas their playing grounds as far as they can carry out their goals. A global answer is the only efficient answer to this global challenge and this necessities strong French ties with Asia.
The Hollande Administration’s Legacy in the Asia-Pacific
Under the administration of François Hollande, France has diversified, deepened and rooted its engagement to the Asia-Pacific with notable success in being recognized as a serious, perennial and efficient partner. With a multivector approach, France has established itself as a reliable regional actor and an honest broker in the Asia-Pacific.
France’s formal plans of action, France and Security in the Asia-Pacific, were released by the Ministry of Defense in April 2014 and updated in June 2016. Undoubtedly, the incoming president will benefit from a better position from Japan (during their 2 + 2 meeting in February 2017, the foreign affairs and defense ministers inked their security cooperation with prospects for joint development of defense equipment and cooperation in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance) to Australia (where cooperation between the like-minded partners in the Pacific has been reinforced) through India, China and Southeast Asia.
The frequency of visits, dialogues, and exchanges is also another signal of the sizable role accorded to the Asia-Pacific region by Paris: President Hollande visited China three times in five years, Japan twice and was the first French president ever to pay a state visit to the Philippines; his last official visit was dedicated to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (March 2017). Laurent Fabius, when foreign minister, was the first to visit the ASEAN Secretariat, where he announced France’s pivot to the region in August 2013. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Asia more than 20 times and had more than 130 meetings with his counterparts and senior representatives from Asia-Pacific countries. The business communities are also much more pro-active — for instance, the French business confederation MEDEF organized plenty of delegation visits to China, Japan, India or Southeast Asia over the last five years to introduce new opportunities in order to support the expansion of French companies in the region.
As explained previously, France has become a major defense industry exporter in the region. This has been creating spin-off effects with France’s strategic partners in training, technological and industrial partnerships, drills as well as other forms of operational cooperation. And these new channels of cooperation/partnerships are here to be deepened, enlarged and diversified.
Institutional dialogues provide another way to inform, exchange views, promote dialogue and mutual understanding. Le Drian, who has been a regular participant of the Shangri La Dialogue from 2012 to 2016 (with the exception of 2015), has used this platform to present France’s posture and strategic analysis on major topics facing the region and to call for further cooperation. At the last exercise in June 2016, he announced France’s intention of coordinating the navies of fellow European Union nations to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPs in the South China Sea to protect “a rule-based international order.” The Jeanne d’Arc carrier strike group, including the French amphibious carrier the Mistral, with two British Royal Navy helicopters aboard and a detachment of 60 Navy personnel from the United Kingdom, is currently deployed on a mission in the Indian and Western Pacific oceans. Port calls are planned in countries with which France has formed a strategic partnership (Vietnam, China, Japan, Australia and Singapore).
The electoral contest and its consequences on French positions
Given France’s stake in the Asia-Pacific region, it is surprising that it has come up only tangentially in the debates. And even if the region is mentioned it is often with a distorted perspective (Asia is still a synonym for China!) based on an emotional approach and seldom with nuanced, realist and consistent analysis. Not one of the 11 original candidates, much less the two that remain, have defended a program on Asia, established regular contacts or visited the region. The 2018 referendum on independence for New Caledonia or the Chinese OBOR (One Belt One Road), both items with major consequences for France, were hardly mentioned.
Yes, the election will have profound consequences for France’s Asia-Pacific policy. Moreover, the two candidates, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, reflect two contrasting views of Asia and that of France’s global status. France’s most critical political division is now between nationalist and internationalist sentiment, between cooperation and unilateralism.
Marine Le Pen, from the National Front (FN), still challenges the status quo in an effort to save “France’s civilization.” During her campaign, she denounced Asia (i.e China) as a threat responsible for France’s deindustrialization and unemployment (even though National Front T-shirts and flags are produced in China and Bangladesh). Opposed to China being granted the status of market economy by the European Union, she is against free trade agreements with any country from the region because of “their devastating French local industries.” She also makes no mention of France’s security engagement in the area, as if there was no link between France’s global status and our military positions and partnerships.
Emmanuel Macron is campaigning for measured economic restructuring and a robust European Union (EU). The support of Minister Le Drian assures that, even if the candidate doesn’t much evoke France’s engagement in the region, its importance will be realistically evaluated and recognized by a possible Macron administration. Also, Macron has called for a reinforcement of a French strategic presence within a European context. Having served as Economy minister (2014 – 2016), Macron has his own evaluation of the pro and cons of China’s economic rise, of India and, to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia. Probably, the candidate will follow the established course of using the EU as a multiplier and implement trade agreements signed with Vietnam, Singapore and South Korea. Much is expected from these trade deals after the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
France’s Asia-Pacific partners are following these final days of the campaign with heightened interest and doubt. They all have an interest in an open, inclusive and cooperative France. China needs a revitalized Europe. Japan is looking for political support to compensate for unpredictability in a tense environment. Australia is betting on further convergence in the South Pacific. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the balance of power is the group’s basic international principle, and as such it will always favor a counterweight to a potential China/USA “G2” or, conversely, a rivalry between China and the United States. France is expected to weigh in on all of these grounds, and as an increasingly key stakeholder, will remain an important actor in the Asia-Pacific region in the years to come.
Sophie Boisseau du Rocher is Senior Research Associate at the Center for Asian Studies at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).