XIAN, China (AFP) - 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 Xi Jinping with a horse as a gift.
The animal, a retired Republican Guard horse named Vesuve de Brekka, is in quarantine in China. But Macron was set to show a photo of it to Xi when they met on Monday (Jan 8) in Beijing.
The French presidential office said Xi 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.
"Wishing to have friendly ties with foreign heads of state, Emmanuel Macron wants to make more than a gift - a diplomatic gesture," the presidency said in a statement.
French historian Jean-Louis Gouraud, the author of a 2009 book on horses in politics, 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 Macron in a position of weakness.
On the other hand, the gift was a gelding - a castrated male - rather than a fertile stallion.
"I hope it won't be considered as a humiliation or disrespectful," Gouraud told AFP. "For an Arab, it would be seen as an insult."
Furthermore, 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 sword-wielding guards on formal occasions.
"We appreciate and express our thanks for this move," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular news briefing, adding that Macron's visit was of "great significance".
"We believe this visit will further enhance the friendship between the two leaderships" and improve cooperation, Lu said.
Macron will also offer Xi a sabre engraved with the phrase "Mr. Emmanuel Macron - President of the French Republic - Beijing - January 2018".
The gifts are 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, which led to Macron's wife, 64-year-old former school teacher Brigitte, being named as its godmother.
The horse arrived in China on a special plane accompanied by the Republican Guard's chief veterinarian and a member of the unit on Jan 4, four days before Macron.
It will remain in quarantine before joining Xi's presidential stable.