French President Emmanuel Macron received Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong on March 27 at the Elysee Palace for a two-day visit. It was Trong’s first visit to Europe since the start of his second term heading the CPV in January 2016. The choice of France was significant for their bilateral relationship. Apart from defense developments, the meeting between the two leaders was fruitful, with cultural and commercial agreements signed.
The timing of Trong’s visit may seem perfect, but the groundwork for increasingly close bilateral relations has been proceeding for some time.
On December 1, 2017, Nguyen Ngoc Son, Vietnam’s ambassador to France, and Tran Quoc Khanh, Vietnam’s deputy minister of trade and industry, came to the Paris headquarters of the Movement of the Enterprises of France (MEDEF), France’s largest employer federation, to present and explain the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) to the public. Khanh told me that Vietnam cannot give a privileged relationship to France because of the terms of the agreement with the EU as a whole. However, in reality there is no need for preferential access to the Vietnamese market.
Ties are already strong thanks to the 7,000 French citizens living there. Furthermore, the two countries share a common past. Marking the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and France, Macron put every effort into welcoming Trong. The most important French companies signed agreements with the Vietnamese government. Airbus signed a $3.1 billion memorandum of understanding to sell Vietnam 24 A321 aircraft. Safran Group and General Electric will provide 200 Leap motors for Boeing 737s for $6.5 billion. Bouygues won a contract to build a 31-kilometer subway in Hanoi and EDF, the French national electrical supplier, will build facilities for liquefied natural gas (LNG).
All the agreements signed last week might seem to be a lot, especially when 300 French companies are listed in Vietnam. But trade with France represents only 1 percent of Vietnam’s international trade. Even if dozens of French entrepreneurs try their luck in Vietnam each year, the trade is not balanced. For 2016, French imports of products from Vietnam represented $4.5 billion, while the the export of French products to Vietnam was about $1.5 billion. Trong’s visit will help to increase economic relations between the two countries. Further bilateral visits are scheduled in 2018.
Cultural exchanges were also discussed between the two leaders. About 6,000 Vietnamese students come each year to study in French universities, making France the leading host country in Europe. Conversely, the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) sends its students to Vietnamese universities each year, not to mention the École Française d’Extrême Orient with its network of researchers working in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. According to Macron, academic, scientific and technologic exchanges represent the heart of the France-Vietnam relationship, and are being given new energy via concrete projects such as the development of the Franco-Vietnam Science and Technology University.
Since the presidency of François Mitterrand, the first Western leader to visit Vietnam in 1993, every French president has visited Vietnam, except for Nicolas Sarkozy. Deep ties bind the two countries together. With the announcement of his upcoming visit to Vietnam, Macron contributes to the strengthening of French soft power in Southeast Asia.
Quoc-Thanh Nguyen has a Ph.D. in maritime studies and is an Associate member of IrAsia (CNRS – Aix Marseille University).