05/13/2012 02:23 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

A Renewed Ambition for Sino-French Relations

Since economic, political and strategic relations between Europe and China are not commensurate with their mutual appreciation and reciprocal attraction, a formidable potential for synergy between the two edges of the continent still awaits to be unleashed.

The new French President François Hollande is obviously facing daunting challenges on the economic front at home and in the Euro zone, but the nature of the relations he will forge with China, the 21st century most important factor of change, will also define his presidency.

At a time when the distribution of power is shifting rapidly -- when Nicolas Sarkozy became French president five years ago, France's GDP was 73% of China's GDP, it will be 33% in 2012 and less than 25% in 2017 -- leaders have to question their assumptions and reevaluate their priorities.

The new resident of the Elysée Palace and the leadership which will emerge from the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China can open a new chapter in the Sino-French relations, contribute to the deepening of the links between Brussels and Beijing and take the Sino-Western synergy at another level.

François Hollande, who does not share his predecessor's reverence for the U.S., is in a position to have a more independent policy toward China, and if the White House has certainly gained a partner in its quest for economic growth, it can not view Paris any more as an acquiescent and unconditional ally. At the coming 25th NATO Summit in Chicago which will focus on the Alliance's commitment to Afghanistan, François Hollande will announce the withdrawal of the French troops from the Central Asian country before the end of the year.

To use the words of the former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, François Hollande considers France and the U.S. as "friends, allies but not aligned" -- "amis, alliés mais pas alignés."

During his long campaign the socialist candidate underlined the importance of stable relations between the two permanent members of the UN Security Council -- by contrast with the fluctuations of the Sarkozy era -- but also, in reference to the 27 billion euros trade deficit with China in 2011, called for more balanced economic relations between the two countries.

The French president will meet his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao at the G-20 Mexico Summit but, on May 7, several hours only after his historical victory he received Kong Quan, the Chinese Ambassador to France, an encounter which followed a conversation with Charles Rivkin, the top American diplomat in Paris. After a phone conversation with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the day of his election, the series of exchanges composed a highly relevant sequence in a century which will be largely characterized by the interactions between Washington, Brussels and Beijing. Besides, by choosing a China expert, Paul Jean-Ortiz, as his top diplomatic advisor three days after his victory, François Hollande signaled that he put in place a team especially in phase with the Chinese dynamics.

In his discussion with the Chinese envoy, François Hollande vowed to further the Sino-French cooperation, asked for the two countries to strengthen collaboration in the G20 and insisted on the necessity to push forward economic links. Clearly, there is considerable space for improvement, the Sino-French trade represented in 2011 only 40% of the Sino-German trade whose amount reached 144 billion Euros -- 1/3 of the total EU-China trade.

A renewed bilateral relationship can certainly contribute to enlarge the horizon of the Sino-European relations, Paris can act as a catalyst for a more autonomous EU external policy toward Beijing. It is becoming urgent for the European policymakers to design mechanisms in order to attract Chinese investment in Europe - China will invest abroad more than $ 1 trillion in the coming decade -- they should grant China Market Economy Status -- which will be, in any case accorded to Beijing under the WTO rules from December 11 2016 -- lift an inopportune and counterproductive arms embargo, closely consult China on security issues, and work on ambitious Sino-European cooperation in third countries -- from Africa to Central Asia.

Some commentators have noticed that the relations between Beijing and the French left have been at time unsteady -- it was under François Mitterrand at the beginning of the '90s that Paris sold Lafayette-class frigates to Taiwan -- and others have expressed concerns about the lack of international experience of the new French president.

However, the 2012 French presidential election offers at least two obvious lessons. First, François Hollande has systematically proved to be wrong those who underestimated him, second, his victory marks the return of politics, and in the midst of inevitable moments of turbulence, it is the political determination to put the Sino-French relations into strategic and long-term perspective which will prevail.

In his congratulatory message to the new French leader, Hu Jintao mentioned "the long-time friendship and cooperation between China and France which is significant in safeguarding and promoting global peace, stability and development." In 1964 following the decision of Charles De Gaulle, France was the first among the major Western countries to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing at the ambassadorial level, and under François Hollande's presidency, Paris and Beijing will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this historical moment.

Often neglected by international relations' theories, the chemistry between leaders is central to the reality of world affairs, and if the new French leader and his Chinese counterpart want this qualitative dimension to fully play its role, they will have to multiply the occasions for direct and relatively long interactions in the appropriate conditions.

While Nicolas Sarkosy and Hu Jintao have never been really able to work as a duo -- they were in fact forced by the financial turmoil to simply normalize the relations after a too long period of mistrust -- François Hollande and Xi Jinping, China's next leader, whose characters and styles seem highly compatible, might be able to match in their own way the understanding which characterized the connection between Jacques Chirac and Jiang Zemin.

On January 31 1964, in the Elysée Palace, Charles De Gaulle concluded a press conference by a remark on what he called the "affinities" between France and China. These cultural and historical "affinities" have to be reactivated and serve as the fulcrum of a new joint global ambition.

The world is greatly benefiting from the French and Chinese humanistic traditions, but in a century of unprecedented interdependence, it is the quality of their articulation which can make a difference.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Busines School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing and Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.