French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed President Xi Jinping for a private dinner near Nice on Sunday as the Chinese leader tours Europe seeking support for an ambitious economic programme dubbed the "new Silk Road".
Italy surprised its EU partners a day earlier, when the eurozone's third-largest economy signed on to China’s vast infrastructure investment programme, which spans more than 70 countries, despite warnings from Brussels.
But Macron might not be so easily won over. He has sought to forge a united European front to contend with China's global ambitions and has called for increased "reciprocity" in trade deals with Beijing.
Xi and his wife arrived around 7pm local time at Villa Kerylos, a Belle Epoque villa museum overlooking the Mediterranean in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Upon his arrival Xi toured the villa with Macron.
The small seaside town is under high surveillance for the state visit and the coastal road has cut off all traffic except for residents. The arrival of the two presidents has also caused huge traffic jams in Nice and caused the closure of the famed Promenade des Anglais.
Despite the pomp, wariness remains
Xi visited the tiny Mediterranean principality of Monaco earlier on Sunday and was welcomed by Prince Albert and Princess Charlene for the first state visit by a Chinese president. The palace said Monaco is interested in increased trade and economic cooperation with China as well as "boosting China's image in the principality".
But Xi's visit poses a particular challenge for Macron, who wants to deepen EU ties with China while also pushing back against Beijing's growing clout.
On Monday, the two leaders will head to Paris for the official portion of the state visit. A series of cooperation deals on nuclear power, aerospace and clean energy initiatives, some involving lucrative contracts, are expected to be signed.
Speaking before Xi's arrival, Macron lauded the EU's "awakening" to the challenges posed by China, which the bloc now labels a "rival" despite being Europe's biggest trading partner.
Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, he told EU leaders that cooperation with China must be matched by caution.
"We have a lot to do together in terms of climate action, in terms of multilateralism, but we also have to defend our own interests," Macron said.
On Tuesday, Macron and Xi will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to explore "points of convergence" ahead of an EU-China summit in Brussels next month.
Two-way Silk Road?
Macron is expected to repeat his calls for increased "reciprocity" regarding market access to China, in particular Beijing's demands that foreign companies hand over vital technological know-how in order to invest in the country.
"If we're going to talk about a new Silk Road, then it must be one that goes in both directions," Finance Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television on Friday.
Europe's distrust of Huawei, which is poised to become the dominant player in next-generation 5G telecoms networks worldwide, is emblematic of the rocky relationship China has with the West.
The US is pressuring European allies to not use the Huawei technology, saying it creates a security risk by potentially letting Beijing install a "back door" on sensitive communications.
Yet so far France has not ruled out using Huawei gear – and Monaco has already signed a deal with the Chinese giant to roll out a 5G network as soon as this year.
Beijing has bristled at the suspicions, accusing Washington of trying to escalate President Donald Trump's trade battle with China.
'Reality very different'
Despite the sources of friction, France's goal is to engage China as a closer partner as Washington makes a pointed withdrawal from global affairs under Trump's "America First" policy.
For example, Macron may seek more Chinese support of the French-backed G5 Sahel force fighting Islamic extremists in Western Africa.
China has been investing heavily in a diplomatic offensive across Africa, promising to help build infrastructure projects as part of the new Silk Road, officially called the Belt and Road Initiative.
Aides say Macron will press Xi to ensure such projects are fair and explore the participation of French companies amid allegations the deals could load African countries with unsustainable debt loads.
He is also expected to urge Xi to commit to the ambitious global bid to cut carbon emissions, though analysts note that China is still building dozens of coal-burning power plants.
France also plans to voice concerns about rights abuses against China's Uighur Muslim minority, including allegations of mass internments in the restive Xinjiang province.
"China talks about defending multilateralism and humanity's common future to anyone wanting to listen, but the reality is very different," said Emmanuel Dubois de Prisque, a China expert with the Thomas More Institute in Paris.
And there are other thorny diplomatic issues of particular interest to France. Grace Meng, the wife of Interpol's missing ex-chief, is currently under French police protection. She told FRANCE 24 she has not heard from her husband since he vanished six months ago on a trip to his native China and has written to Macron urging him to raise her husband’s case with President Xi during his visit.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)