Macron allies defend Taiwan comments

French president does not address controversy in Netherlands speech

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech to the Nexus Institute in the Amare theatre in The Hague on April 11th. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

French officials stressed the country’s close ties to the US after Emmanuel Macron caused consternation in Western capitals by suggesting that he feared the EU could become a “vassal” of Washington as well as Beijing.

Several close allies of Mr Macron issued the defence on Tuesday after he came under fire in the wake of a three-day state visit to China for suggesting in an interview that Europe should distance itself from Sino-American tensions over Taiwan.

If there were a conflict between the US-China “duopoly” then Europe “would not have the time or the means to build our strategic autonomy”, France’s president told Les Echos and Politico. In that case, he argued, Europeans “would become vassals instead of a third pole if we had a few years to build it”.

With the controversy in its third day, officials in Brussels, Warsaw and Berlin again criticised Mr Macron’s stance and said the timing of his comments on Taiwan was unhelpful given the bloc’s heavy reliance on American military support when it comes to the Ukraine conflict. Beijing has also carried out large-scale military drills around the contested island in recent days.

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Mr Macron’s comments risked undercutting EU’s unity on the war in Ukraine, another official said, adding that China had been “impressed” by how the usually fractious bloc had “been able to reach unity” and keep it. “We have the capacity to act with unity under the most massive aggressive pressure ... This is huge capital that one should not squander,” said the person.

The tensions come at a delicate time for Mr Macron as he has faced months of mass protests in France over his flagship pensions reform. To distance himself from the unrest, he has undertaken a flurry of diplomatic trips abroad, including to Africa and China, only to have those also descend into controversy.

As criticism of his Taiwan comments intensified on Tuesday, Mr Macron started a two-day state visit to the Netherlands, yet carefully avoided addressing the issue in a lengthy speech at the Nexus Institute in The Hague. Before the speech, a protester shouted “Where is French democracy?” while another unfolded a banner reading “President of violence and hypocrisy”.

The Élysée Palace sent out allies to explain the president’s interview by saying he had not meant to suggest that France saw itself as “equidistant” between the US and China, nor did it put the countries on equal footing.

“We are obviously allies of the United States,” said finance minister Bruno Le Maire on Europe 1 radio. “We share the same values and many of the same economic interests. But it is not because we are allied with the US that we must be against China.”

Stéphane Séjourné, a member of European Parliament and head of Macron’s Renaissance party, said France wanted to help bring down tensions in the Taiwan Strait and believed that it, along with the European Union, could help avoid war playing the role of a “balancing power”.

“There is no desire to let Taiwan be invaded by China. On the contrary, we want to bring the tensions down and have our own voice in diplomacy today,” Mr Séjourné said on France Inter. “But I must again say there is a real difference between the US and China – on one side is the biggest democracy in the world and the other an authoritarian regime.”

He added that France’s position on Taiwan had not changed: “France will manage, or try to manage, the status quo on Taiwan and lower tensions, but in no way will it side with an authoritarian regime.”

White House officials have been careful not to display public discontent with Mr Macron’s diplomatic efforts in China, and on Monday lauded the “terrific bilateral relationship” the US has with France.

Others were less charitable. Raphaël Glucksmann, a European MP from a French left-wing party, was withering on the damage left by Mr Macron’s visit to China, and the way it was presented in a slickly produced video posted to social media by the Élysée Palace.

“Pathetic. Are we aware of the harm that this kind of communication does to the interests of France in Europe?” Mr Glucksmann tweeted. “How do you expect us to convince our partners of the necessary European strategic autonomy when we prostrate ourselves before the Chinese regime?”

Speaking on Tuesday before boarding a plane for a visit to the US, Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki took a thinly veiled jab at Mr Macron’s diplomatic manoeuvring and said the alliance with the US was the “absolute foundation of our security” in Europe.

“Some Western leaders dream of co-operation with everyone, with Russia and with some powers in the Far East,” he said.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023