France-based organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB) staged a large demonstration Thursday in the French capital to protest against Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is in the country on a three-day state visit, and the treatment of dissenters in China. RWB activists prepared five trucks wielding life-size (and photo shopped) posters of Xi making an offensive gesture; the accompanying caption read “without freedom of information, no force of opposition.” However, only one vehicle was allowed to enter Paris, where it passed in front of major tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.
There is little indication that Xi — or his host, French President François Hollande — is paying attention. The Elysée rolled out the red carpet for the Chinese leader this week, staging an elaborate state dinner and a private concert at the Palace of Versailles for Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan. City authorities went so far as to temporarily close several Parisian streets and thirteen metro lines to ensure smooth transit for the Chinese head of state. Hollande’s objectives here are clear: increased trade and investment with China, which have lagged in recent years, and deals in aviation, nuclear, space, agriculture, automotive, and urban development sectors. The French leader made political overtures as well, urging Xi to host a G20 summit, which would mark a first for China and a way to cement its growing influence on the global stage.
While Hollande touched on the “convergences” in the two nations’ views on international issues like Syria and Iran, he made limited mention of Crimea, and China’s notable abstention from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning that region’s Russia-backed secession referendum. He made even less mention of human rights in China — note that Amnesty International released its annual list on use of the death penalty worldwide on Thursday, which was topped by China — only briefly alluding to the “human rights to which France is attached” during a toast before the state dinner held Wednesday.
VISUAL CONTEXT: China’s human rights record
So Hollande remains focused on wooing Xi, who since taking office one year ago has changed little in the way of press or Internet freedoms, despite his so-called reform platform. Little wonder — the French president is on the offensive in the wake of disastrous local elections on Sunday, which left his ruling Socialist Party (PS) scrambling to recover from heavy losses, amid gains made by the far right. His immediate strategy consists of tweaking his economic policy on both the domestic level — i.e., implementing tax reforms — and the international one. Meaning that for now, human rights look to be relegated to the back burner. (See France’s hesitation to engage Morocco over the sensitive Western Sahara issue.)
Here, dismal approval ratings notwithstanding, the unpopular French president has tangible gains to advertise: some $31 billion worth of deals with China. Hollande is already playing up the benefits of increased Sino-France cooperation for the home crowd, noting “Eighteen billion euros in contracts means employment” — this on the same day that dismal employment figures for February were released, with a new high of 3.34 million jobseekers. It remains to be seen if frustrated French voters, who will participate in the second round of municipal elections this weekend, are impressed.