The French defense is in a difficult chess game with China.
France is facing a growing Chinese influence. In Africa, Oceania, and at home.
In November, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called China a “predatory partner.” In an interview with Le Monde, he was particularly critical of Chinese policies in Africa. China is now the continent’s most important trading partner. It is also the biggest creditor of African countries whose debts have exploded since the pandemic. China now holds almost 21% of African debt.
Le Drian’s speech came a few days before the China-Africa summit in Dakar, Senegal. China and African countries discussed trade and security. Senegal in particular expressed hope that China will support the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel. France already has a military operation underway in the region. Launched in 2014, Operation Barkhane aims to fight armed Salafist jihadist groups.
The Chinese presence adds to the growing difficulties of France in West Africa. A few weeks ago, a French military convoy bound for Mali reached Niger a week after it left. The French military was stranded in Burkina Faso, where protesters stopped the convoy several times. The organizers of the protests were a group called the Coalition of African Patriots of Burkina Faso. They criticized the results of security agreements between their country and France in dealing with the jihadist threat. Le Drian described the action as the result of widespread manipulation on social media that stokes anti-French sentiment.
In this region, France also faces Russia’s growing political influence. Since 2018, Russia has expanded its influence in Mali and the Central African Republic through the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group. Last summer, France decided to freeze financial aid and military cooperation with the Central African Republic because, according to Paris, the Central African government allegedly has links to a Russian-initiated anti-French campaign.
But it is above all China that threatens French interests, and not only in Africa. The French press and politicians were watching with particular attention the referendum on the independence of New Caledonia. Many feared that independence could lead to New Caledonia’s gradual entry into the Chinese sphere of influence. It didn’t happen but fears didn’t go away.
Chinese influence is still relevant today, according to the report “Les opérations d’influence chinoises” by the Institut de recherche stratégique de l’École militaire (IRSEM). The IRSEM researchers argue that China is promoting independence movements to regain market share and weaken potential adversaries. For example, analysts at the research institute explained that China has created the Sino-Caledonian Friendship Association, close to the independence movement, to expand its influence in New Caledonia.
According to the report, a victory for independence would have allowed China to isolate Australia, as Beijing can “count on Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), Honiara (Solomon Islands), Port-Vila (Vanuatu), and Suva (Fiji)” in addition to Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. An independent New Caledonia would have provided China “with raw materials, especially nickel”. The island has 20% of the world’s reserves of metal, an important component of batteries for electric cars and it is essential for the production of stainless steel.
However, Chinese influence is also felt at home. China has managed to build an extensive network of relationships with French think tanks and foundations. The IRSEM report points to the well-known Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) as one example. According to the researchers, IRIS co-organized a series of events on the Belt and Road Initiative with the Chinese Embassy in France, where any criticism of the Chinese project was “carefully nipped in the bud.” Bridge Tank is another ad hoc partner of the Chinese authorities. It also receives donations from the Chinese Embassy and Chinese companies. These research centers are not defending the Chinese model. But, as the IRSEM report notes,
[…] the partnerships they form, especially with the Chinese embassy, the events they organize or participate in, the party newspapers they publish in, or the reports they broadcast, de facto contribute to Chinese influence, even though they may be critical of Beijing.
In addition, China’s state broadcaster CGTN began broadcasting in France in March 2021. In February, British media regulator Ofcom had revoked CGTN’s broadcasting license. UK regulations prohibit a political body from controlling a license. CGTN had therefore approached the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel to be able to broadcast from a terrestrial transmitter in France via satellite in Europe. Permission was subsequently granted. But problems arose immediately.
The station was accused of broadcasting propaganda messages. In one case that resonated widely in the French media, a young woman claiming to be a freelance French journalist based in China denied allegations of genocide and persecution of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. The French press then attempted to obtain more information about the French journalist Laurene Beaumond, the author of the article. However, the attempts were unsuccessful. CGTN then stated that the journalist would use a pseudonym, which is not explained in any of the articles.