France's 'Influential Power' and Sino-European Relations

On the occasion of his second official visit to Beijing as the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius will attempt to co-write a new chapter of the Sino-French relations while a profound redistribution of power affects Paris' position in the international arena.

Outside France, the usual French-bashing continues to deride "la grande nation," but the theme of France's decline agitates the French society in a more serious manner as three simultaneous crises -- economic, social and political -- strike the country.

It is in this context that Laurent Fabius has been using the notion of "puissance d'influence" -- "influential power" -- to guide his diplomatic action and, in a sense, he reinterprets the Gaullist affirmation of France's singular "rayonnement" whose permanency contrasts with the vicissitudes inherent to politics, the ups and downs of economic cycles.

"Influential power," according to Laurent Fabius, is what makes France bigger than herself, and one should not deduct mechanically her standing from her weight, in other words, while by the measure of "hard power" Paris' rank might be diminished, France is still playing a role proportionate with the significance of the universal principles she wishes to embody: liberté, égalité and fraternité.

This is a stimulating proposition in a world where power is associated with quantity, in essence more qualitative than Joseph Nye's classification of power -- hard, soft and smart -- the concept of "influential power" reemphasizes the impact of principles and values in world politics.

With the coercion of "hard power" or the cooptation inherent to "soft power" countries act in order to change the behaviors of other nations, but the causality of "influential power" is more complex, its source is less in the hands or the mouth of a self-proclaimed leader than in the respectful eyes who attribute prestige and standing.

It is the Senegalese poet and statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor, the man of both the "négritude" and of the "civilization of the universal", who viewed French as the idiom of a new humanism, the Académie Française can defend the French language on the left bank of the Seine river but the true spirit of the Francophonie, another element of "influential power," lives outside the Hexagon.

When the last grand master of the Chinese traditional painting, Fan Zeng, resurrects Victor Hugo in ink portraits, grandeur emanates as much from the recollection of his genius than from the resonance of his quest for justice, not French, not Chinese, but universal.
To earn the Jeffersonian observation -- "Every man has two countries -- his own and France" -- Paris cannot remain passive when barbarity threatens civilization, the nature of the French answer in Mali or in Syria is also explained by a dual responsibility, to itself and to the world.
However, without a certain level of economic and military might, humanistic values are mere utopian ideals, and if France has always been a catalyst for the European integration it is with the ambition that the union of Europe's small States enables the Old continent to be of consequence in a world of giants.

Co-architect of a united Europe, apt to rally the energies across the continents by a conscious effort of synthesis and conciliation, the French "influential power" prevents the risks of tensions or even clashes between the West and the rest. The rise of the BRICS is in itself a highly positive trend but a new type of rivalry between the West and the emerging world would be for the global village a major factor of instability.

In Africa, while China's growing presence does not have to be a loss for the Euro-African relations, work has to be done to better coordinate the Chinese and Western approaches toward what is arguably the continent of the future.

Mali, and beyond, the Sahelian space, will not become the laboratory where China, Europe and Africa, with the explicit endorsement of the United Nations, invent the 21st century cooperation for peace and social progress without a strong political understanding between Beijing and Paris.

A renewed Sino-French strategic partnership which takes into account the reality of Paris' "influential power" and the global implications of the Chinese renaissance, is a guarantee against new lines of global fractures, the South-South relations matter as much as the North-North relations but they should be seen as two interdependent processes of a greater convergence.

For the French "influential power" and its constant dialogue with the universal, Europe is the indispensable intermediary between the nations and mankind, the Sino-European cooperation the necessary condition for global peace and solidarity.

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