XI'AN (China) • In a response to panda power, French President Emmanuel Macron bet on equine diplomacy during his first state visit to China, presenting his Chinese counterpart with a horse as a gift.
The animal, a retired Republican Guard horse named Vesuve de Brekka, is in quarantine in China.
The French presidential office said Chinese President Xi Jinping had been fascinated by the Republican Guard when he was escorted during a visit to Paris in 2014, but the choice of gift became a talking point back home in France.
French historian Jean-Louis Gouraud said he found the choice puzzling and wondered if it might be misinterpreted.
Horse exchanges have long been a diplomatic tradition, but they were offered in the past to all-powerful Chinese emperors as a sign of deference by visitors, and the move could be seen as showing Mr Macron in a position of weakness.
However, the gift was a gelding - a castrated male - rather than a fertile stallion. "I hope it won't be considered as being a humiliation or disrespectful," Mr Gouraud said.
Moreover, the French leader's name in Mandarin is rendered "ma ke long", or "the horse vanquishes the dragon".
The eight-year-old dark brown horse took part in its last presidential escort on Nov 11 on the Champs-Elysees. The horses are ridden by guards on formal occasions.
"We appreciate and express our thanks for this move," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, adding that Mr Macron's visit was of great significance.
"We believe this visit will further enhance the friendship between the two leaderships."
The horse arrived in China on a special plane last Thursday. It will remain in quarantine before joining Mr Xi's presidential stable.
The horse is Mr Macron's answer to China's panda diplomacy, in which the once critically endangered bears are loaned by Beijing to foreign countries as a sign of friendship. One such loan resulted in the birth of a panda in France last year.
Yesterday, a video of Mr Macron wrestling with the Mandarin pronunciation of his climate change slogan, "Make our planet great again", has delighted Chinese social media.
One Weibo user wrote that it showed his "steadfast resolve" to spread his environmental message.