French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted by a huge crowd at a university in southern China on Friday on the last day of a visit in which he repeatedly pushed his counterpart Xi Jinping to help end the Ukraine conflict.
Macron, who landed in the capital Beijing on Wednesday, said he was seeking to dissuade China from supporting Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
On Friday, he flew to the southern city of Guangzhou, where he was mobbed by hundreds of screaming students and fans desperate for a selfie or a high-five with the French leader, in stark contrast with China’s own staid political system.
Macron, whose name was chanted by some in the crowd, then spoke to students in the campus gym and answered their questions before an early dinner with Xi ahead of meetings with Chinese investors and a flight home.
Russia’s conflict with Ukraine has dominated Macron’s visit to China — his first since 2019.
And he told students in Guangzhou that the war was “a manifest violation of our international law”.
Russia, he told them, was “a country that has decided to colonise its neighbour and not to respect the rules”.
“The international order is now weakened and we have a responsibility, China and France, to preserve it and at the same time to reinvent it in the light of the realities of the 21st century,” he said.
Macron also urged them to embrace a “critical spirit” that would allow them to become “free, rational individuals” — another stark contrast with the rigid, state-controlled education to which Chinese students are subject.
– ‘Bring Russia to its senses’ –
In a joint statement late Friday, both sides pledged to “support all efforts to restore peace in Ukraine”.
The statement, which did not name Russia or condemn its offensive, called on all parties to respect international law.
In talks with Xi on Thursday, Macron had said: “I can count on you to bring Russia to its senses and everyone to the negotiating table”.
According to a French diplomat, Xi expressed a willingness to speak with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, but only when the time is right.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who is accompanying Macron on his visit, welcomed Xi’s openness to speaking with Zelensky.
In contrast with the amiable Macron, von der Leyen has struck a more firm tone in her talks with Chinese officials this week.
On Thursday, she said she had shared her “deep concerns about the deterioration of the human rights situation in China” with officials, and warned Beijing that arms shipments to Russia would “significantly harm” relations.
Moscow has poured cold water on prospects of Beijing’s mediation, insisting on Thursday it had “no choice” but to press on with its Ukraine offensive.
“Undoubtedly, China has a very effective and commanding potential for mediation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“But the situation with Ukraine is complex, so far there are no prospects for a political settlement.”
– Trade partnership –
Beyond the war in Ukraine, Macron’s visit has also focused on firming up a crucial trade partnership.
The French leader is accompanied by more than 50 French business leaders, including the top bosses of Airbus, EDF and Veolia.
Airbus announced Thursday it would open a second final assembly line in China that will double its production capacity in the country, with the framework for the deal signed by CEO Guillaume Faury in Beijing.
The firm said Friday that it had agreed to sell 50 helicopters to the Chinese leasing firm GDAT.
Asia has become a key market for both Airbus and its US rival Boeing, as demand for air travel climbs with an expanding middle class.
Macron’s trip to China also comes as he faces challenges at home, with mounting anger over controversial pension reforms leading to fresh clashes between protesters and police in Paris on Thursday.