The French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, has urged Chinese leaders to open their markets wider to foreign companies and lobbied for investment in France’s electric car industry. This comes as France, the European Union’s second-largest economy, follows Washington in reviving post-COVID economic talks amid tension over Beijing’s surging trade surpluses.
Le Maire also defended Paris’s controls on foreign access to technology after authorities said two Chinese citizens are under investigation for possible smuggling of French-made processor chips with military uses to China and Russia.
During his visit, Le Maire met with Vice Premier He Lifeng, Beijing’s top envoy on economic issues. This visit follows Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s trip to Beijing as part of US efforts to revive relations with China.
Chinese officials gave Le Maire and Yellen a warm welcome as part of their efforts to reverse the economic slump by reviving foreign investor interest, but Beijing has not indicated any possible changes in its technology and other policies that its trading partners say violate Chinese market-opening commitments.
The European Union is aiming to narrow its trade deficit with China, which swelled to 396 billion euros ($432 billion) last year. Le Maire identified cosmetics, aerospace, and agriculture as potential areas for increased French exports.
Le Maire emphasized the need to improve access to the Chinese market, stating that it was at the core of their discussions. He said, “We want to have a stronger economic relationship between Europe and China, between France and China, which means getting access for all European goods.”
PHOTOS: France’s Le Maire presses China on market access and lobbies for electric car investment
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government has been looking to Europe as an alternative market and source of technology since the US tightened controls on access to US processor chips and other high-tech goods, as well as increased tariffs on imports from China in a dispute over its industry development ambitions.
During the meeting, Le Maire and Chinese officials pledged to cooperate on climate change, financing for developing countries, and nuclear power. They also announced plans to set up a group to settle a dispute over access to China’s market for cosmetics, a major French export.
Le Maire also sought investment from China’s fast-growing electric car industry. He visited Shenzhen to meet with Wang Chuanfu, the founder of BYD Auto, one of the world’s largest electric vehicle producers. Le Maire stated, “We want China to make investments in France in electric vehicles…to reinforce our economic relations and also speed up action against global warming.”
The talks also touched on Russia’s war against Ukraine, with complaints that China might be helping Moscow evade Western sanctions. However, Le Maire did not discuss the war with Chinese officials, but deemed it in Beijing’s interest to end the conflict as soon as possible.
Le Maire also defended French controls on technology exports and foreign investment in high-tech industries. French authorities are investigating two Chinese citizens associated with chip producer Ommic for possible charges of exporting chips to a Chinese armaments maker using forged documents.
Chinese authorities have complained that their companies are unfairly targeted by restrictions on access to foreign technology. They argue that restrictions on access to semiconductors will disrupt industries such as smartphones.
Le Maire emphasized the need for France to protect its key technologies, stating, “We don’t want any foreign country to gain access to those French sovereign technologies.”