BEIJING • Chinese President Xi Jinping and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron met for talks and to oversee the signing of business deals as the two global leaders seek closer ties.
Mr Macron, on the second day of his three-day state visit, offered to open up France to Chinese investment in exchange for greater access to China's markets, warning during yesterday's talks that trade imbalances would lead to protectionism.
France, which runs a €30 billion (S$47.8 billion) deficit with China, has, like other European nations, demanded reciprocal access to the huge Chinese market.
"We have an access to markets which is unbalanced, unsatisfying," Mr Macron told members of the French and Chinese business community at a start-up incubator in Beijing.
"If we don't deal with this responsibly, the first, natural, reaction will be to close up on both sides."
With German Chancellor Angela Merkel bogged down in coalition negotiations and British Prime Minister Theresa May swamped by Brexit, the 40-year-old French President has emerged as arguably the strongest voice in Europe.
The trip to China is well-timed to convey that message and he has not been shy about promoting it, declaring after he arrived that "Europe is back" and announcing that he would visit China every year of his five-year presidency.
LESSENING TRADE IMBALANCES
We have an access to markets which is unbalanced, unsatisfying. If we don't deal with this responsibly, the first, natural, reaction will be to close up on both sides.
FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON, on the importance of France having reciprocal access to the huge Chinese market.
Beijing has praised Mr Macron's decision to make China his first state visit to an Asian nation.
Mr Xi, who had already hosted Mr Macron and his wife Brigitte for dinner on Monday night, treated the French leader to a welcome ceremony with honour guards before their meeting yesterday.
But while the rhetoric has been strong, and TV commentary suggests the French first couple have been a big hit with the Chinese, the underlying success of state visits is best measured these days in business contracts.
Despite bringing with him some of the heaviest hitters in French business, finance and industry - including senior executives from Airbus, BNP Paribas, AccorHotels, EDF and LVMH - there were no immediate announcements of mega-deals. Instead, smaller contracts or commitments to go on talking were signed.
Airbus said it planned to boost the number of planes it makes in China under a deal signed yesterday to expand cooperation. But it did not sign any deal to sell aircraft to China.
French engineering firm Fives signed a deal with Chinese online retail giant JD.com, which agreed to sell €2 billion worth of French products - such as Remy Martin cognac or Evian water - over the next two years.
China's Premier Li Keqiang told Mr Macron that Beijing hoped France would export more high-tech products to China, according to a government statement.
"We welcome France to expand investment in China and exports of high-grade French products, and we hope the French side will further loosen exports of high-tech products to China," Mr Li said.
Earlier yesterday, Mr Macron and his wife were accompanied by students from the French International School and a French historian on a visit to the Forbidden City.
Mr Macron asked historian Patrice Fava to translate a banner which read, "With fairness, govern from the centre".
"It's important. It's symbolic," said Mrs Macron, whose husband campaigned as a centrist candidate in the French presidential election.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE