Blog | May 04, 2017

France’s Influence in the Asia-Pacific at Risk with the Presidential Election

BY: SOPHIE BOISSEAU DU ROCHER

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 does not even evoke the depth of such a global transformation, nor the best way to manage coming challenges for future generations. This is particularly true regarding the Asia-Pacific, a region where France recently has 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

France has much to gain (or lose) as it needs the expanding capacity of the Asia-Pacific to retain its own status as a global power, as well as its economic competitiveness. First, 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 32 percent in 2016 (16 percent of total trade); French direct investment now exceeds 80 billion USD. Second, France has a major stake in regional stability. With territories in the Indian and the Pacific 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. France, with permanent operational naval and aerial deployment in these theatres, will be affected directly and possibly solicited as growing interconnections justify a security continuum. Furthermore, as a member of the United Nations Security Council and a nuclear power, France has certain inherent responsibilities.

The Hollande Administration’s Legacy in the Asia-Pacific

Under the Administration of François Hollande, France successfully has rooted its engagement to the Asia-Pacific as a legitimate and reliable regional actor.

Undoubtedly, the incoming president will inherit several promising partnerships including Japan (with which “2+2” meetings were established in 2015), Australia (where cooperation as like-minded partners in the Pacific has been reinforced) as well as India, China and Southeast Asia. This has come about by prioritizing consistent dialogue at both the administrative and institutional levels. For example, French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has been a regular participant of the Shangri La Dialogue, the most important regular gathering of defense professionals in the Asia-Pacific since 2012. France is also a candidate for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (comprising 10 ASEAN countries plus eight partners) and the East Asia Summit. The business communities are also pro-active, with the French business confederation MEDEF having organized numerous delegation visits to China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia over the last five years.

It is important to note that France has become a major defense industry exporter to the region. Roughly 30 percent of the submarines sold to Southeast Asian countries come from France; France sold 36 Rafale jet fighters to the Indian Air Force and similar negotiations are underway with the Malaysians and Indonesians. French helicopters, of all types, and transport aircrafts are also common purchases in Southeast Asia. Also, in December 2016, Australia signed a deal to acquire 12 French submarines that will extend security cooperation for the next 50 years between the two countries.

The Electoral Contest and its Consequences on French Positions

Given France’s stake in the region, its improved position and the positive perception France has in the Asia-Pacific, it is surprising that this is an issue virtually ignored by the candidates. Rather, if the Asia-Pacific has come up tangentially in the debates, it is often with a distorted perspective or an emotional approach demonizing China, seldom offering a nuanced, realistic and consistent analysis.

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 the European Union granting China the status of market economy, 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 its military positions and partnerships.

Emmanuel Macron is campaigning for measured economic restructuring and a robust European Union. The support of Minister Le Drian is an assurance that, even if the candidate does not evoke France’s engagement in the region, the stakes are evaluated at their proper weight and with realist constraints. Also, Macron has called for a reinforcement of a French strategic presence within a European context. Having served as Economy minister, from 2014 to 2016, Macron has his own evaluation of the pros 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-U.S. “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). 

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.