April 25-26, 2013
Updated: 2014-05-04 17:33
French President Francois Hollande starts a two-day visit to China on Thursday, hoping that the trappings of a state visit to the world's second strongest economic power will curb the growing criticism of his government at home.
Hollande's visit is the first by a leader of a major Western power since the new Chinese leadership led by President Xi Jinping assumed office. It is also the first visit since the Cypriot banking bailout, and Chinese leaders will seek reassurances from Hollande that the European Union finally has the eurozone crisis under control.
Interestingly, the French central bank is reportedly ready to explore the possibility of using the renminbi in bilateral trade deals. This could be a ploy to increase the chances of Paris playing a role as an offshore center for the Chinese currency. It will face tough competition, however, from London and Hong Kong.
Given the economic problems facing France, Hollande will seek to push French exports, including Airbus, and welcome inward investment from China. Apart from seeking to expand financial and commercial ties, Hollande and his Chinese interlocutors will also discuss the developments on the Korean Peninsula, as well as the Syrian and Iranian issues. Hollande is likely to push Xi to influence the erratic behaviour of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Besides, France believes that a nuclear DPRK is not in China's best interest.
Although Hollande and Xi will discuss bilateral and international issues, it will be no surprise if they have a private conversation on how to deal with corruption, which was identified by Xi as one of the biggest challenges facing China in his acceptance speech after being nominated president.
Hollande defeated former president Nicolas Sarkozy in last year's election partly on the promise that he would reject austerity and lead France back to economic growth and partly because he promised that his government, unlike that of his predecessor, would be scandal free.
Now Hollande is being forced to admit that there is no magic wand to reinvigorate the ailing French economy. He is facing difficult decisions on how to reduce public expenditure.
Worse, his government is being mired in its own corruption scandal.
In his first year in office, unemployment in France has risen to 3.2 million, the highest level in 15 years. Debt has climbed above 90 percent of GDP and the promise to reduce the deficit this year to 3 percent of output has been shelved. With little or no growth there is no alternative but to cut public spending. According to its own assessment, France needs to cut 60 billion euros ($78.27 billion) in spending by 2017.
Hollande's dramatic drop in opinion polls is partly because of his failure to bring about economic growth and partly because of ministerial scandals. Recently, one of his closest ministerial confidants, Jerome Cahuzac, admitted that he had hidden 600,000 euros in a Swiss bank account, after having repeatedly denied it. He was forced to resign and is now being investigated for tax fraud.
Now the president has decreed that ministers should reveal details of their personal wealth in an effort to regain public trust. Each of France's 37 ministers is required to publish details of their personal finances. The list of assets includes details of bank accounts, life assurance policies, property and other expensive items such as cars, art works and antiques.
In an effort to raise money, Hollande promised to tax the rich. But many have fled to neighbouring Belgium or, in the case of film star Gerard Depardieu, to Russia. These proposals are now in abeyance.
The question of corruption and transparency in government is part of the G20 agenda, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, has urged his ministers to reveal details of their private wealth.
Chinese leaders have made clear their concerns over the growing rich-poor gap and the dangers of untrammelled corruption. Social media are already playing their part in highlighting the expensive lifestyle of some officials. Perhaps China will also consider cracking down on tax evasion.
Neither French nor Chinese like paying taxes but public services must be financed from some source. How to deal with corruption and prevent tax evasion could well be the most interesting part of the Hollande-Xi talks.