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France to shed ‘Amélie’ image after 50 years of China ties

© Photo: AFP

Text by Sam BALL

Latest update : 2014-01-27

France and China marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties with celebrations in both Beijing and Paris on Monday. But for France, the occasion is also an opportunity to rebrand itself in the eyes of the world’s second largest economy.

On January 27th 1964, then French President Charles de Gaulle became the first Western leader to officially recognise the People’s Republic of China, opening up diplomatic relations with the country for the first time since its switch to communism.

But while de Gaulle’s historic gesture has underpinned mostly strong French-Chinese diplomatic ties in the years since, this has not always translated into tangible gains for French businesses, who have failed to capitalise on the vast growth in China’s economy to the same extent as European rivals.

France accounts for just 1.3 percent of China’s foreign trade, compared to more than five percent for Germany.

France is now hoping to change this by convincing Beijing that it is not just the country of gastronomy, fine wines and haute couture, but also of technological innovation and industrial strength.

‘The France of Amélie Poulain’

“We want to celebrate this historic moment but we do not want it to be simply a celebration of the France of Amélie Poulain,” said Claude Bartolone, president of France’s National Assembly, during a visit to China on Monday as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Amélie Poulain was the title character in the 2001 film “Amélie”, which portrayed a quaint, romanticised version of France and was a huge success in China.

“We want this anniversary to allow us to talk about the future and make it clear to our Chinese friends that France is also the country of nuclear energy, agribusiness, the pharmaceutical industry,” said Bartolone.

“France needs to exist economically in China as much as it does politically."

But while attempting to convince Beijing of its industrial prestige, France must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water – its cultural ‘soft power’ has helped certain French businesses, such as luxury fashion brands and wine traders, achieve success in China.

Above all though, the ‘Amélie’ image has helped France become the prime European destination for Chinese tourists, with more than 1.2 million visitors from China coming to the country last year.

It is with this in mind that France this month announced a new visa regime which will see travel requests from Chinese visitors processed within 48 hours.

Focus: France's new visa scheme for Chinese vistors

It is also one of the reasons why French businesses, along with their Chinese counterparts, have provided sponsorship to the tune of 2.4 million euros for Monday’s “Nuit de Chine” (China Night) at the Grand Palais in Paris to open the 50th anniversary celebrations.

The spectacular show will feature a mix of Chinese and French performers, from dancers and musicians to an equestrian performance to mark the upcoming Chinese year of the horse.

Some 2,000 Chinese students currently studying in France will be among the invited guests, while the doors will be opened up to the general public later in the evening.

The list of French sponsors includes many of the famous luxury brands (Dior, Hermès, Moët Hennessy) which have been able to capitalise on France’s cultural reputation in China, but also a host of names at the forefront of French industry, such as energy giant EDF and aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation.

‘Another Charles de Gaulle’

It is not just France, however, that wants to see a shift in its relationship with Beijing.
Some in China also want to see ties with France head in a new direction, but not necessarily for the same reasons.

In an editorial published on Monday, Chinese daily the Global Times suggested France still maintained ‘European’ prejudices against China, preventing closer ties between the two.

“The ‘gene of Charles de Gaulle’, which refers to the foresight in setting up a platform between China and Europe, seems nowhere to be found among the majority of the French people,” it said.

De Gaulle remains a popular figure in China thanks to his decision to recognise the country’s communist government years before many other Western states – it took the US until 1979 to do the same - and a retrospective exhibition on the former French leader was opened in Beijing Monday to mark the 50 year anniversary.

But recent French Presidents have failed to endear themselves to the Chinese public to the same extent. Disagreements over issues such as foreign policy and China’s human rights record have not helped.

“Perhaps Paris needs another Charles de Gaulle to draw the two countries closer,” the Global Times editorial said.

“The new leader should be committed to taking the lead in establishing strategic mutual trust in a real sense, breaking through ideological barriers and striving for brand new ties between the old European continent and the emerging world.”

Date created : 2014-01-27