Macron Offers Xi Cheese and Armagnac on Chilly Mountain Visit

(Bloomberg) -- On the second day of Xi Jinping’s visit to France, Emmanuel Macron ditched the gold-plated formalities of Paris’s Elysee Palace to take the Chinese president to the mountains where he spent his childhood holidays.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The two leaders had mainly stuck to their existing positions during Monday’s carefully choreographed talks in the French capital, and Macron was hoping that a more intimate setting would help him warm up Xi as he pushed for a reset of economic ties and help to resolve the war in Ukraine.

Along a road in the Pyrenees more normally associated with fans cheering on Tour de France riders, dozens of Chinese people in white baseball caps waved red flags as the two presidents were driven up the legendary Tourmalet pass, 2,115 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level. At the top of “the terrible mountain,” as it’s known to cyclists, they were greeted by a snowstorm and thick fog.

To brighten the atmosphere, Macron gave Xi some Armagnac and berets as gifts, as well as wool blankets from the region as a birthday present for his mother. He also offered him a yellow jersey — as worn by the leader in the Tour de France — signed by Jonas Vingegaard, the winner for the last two years, adding that he would be delighted if Chinese riders took part in the race one day.

They then tasted some local cheese and cold meats, which Xi said he would promote. “I like cheese a lot,” the Chinese president said.

Macron then invited his counterpart and their wives for a lunch of local ham, lamb and beans, and blueberry tart in a restaurant run by a family friend, where he hoped the two would see more clearly.

A senior French official said the mood on Monday was constructive but not particularly warm. Xi rarely displays his personal side and has become very guarded and stoic in public.

As a child, the French president spent his holidays in the area below the Tourmalet pass with his maternal grandparents. His grandmother, nicknamed Manette, was a key figure as he was growing up, and Macron has said she gave him a passion for reading.

Like millions of young Chinese, Xi spent much of his adolescence in a rural village during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He has recalled that the seven years he spent feeding pigs, clearing sewage and devouring books including by French author Victor Hugo in China’s northwest was humbling and transformational. Among the gifts Macron offered to Xi on his arrival in France was a 19th century Chinese translation of Hugo’s writing.

Macron’s effort to establish a personal bond by sharing his childhood corner of southwestern France comes after Xi last year invited him to have tea at the residence of the Guangdong governor, a post once held by the Chinese president’s father.

Still, Xi has become far more cautious in the nine years since he enjoyed a casual pint of beer with fish and chips in a British pub with former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. And Macron has also seen the limits of his attempts to create intimacy with authoritarian leaders: he hosted Vladimir Putin at his summer retreat on the Mediterranean coast in 2019 to try to persuade him to help end the conflict in Ukraine — 2 1/2 years before the Russian president launched a full-scale invasion.

Tensions over trade between China and the European Union were at the center of talks in Paris. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen joined the two leaders in the morning, after which she said the EU is prepared to deploy all the tools available to defend its economies if China fails to offer fair access to its markets.

Macron said Xi had softened his stance on French cognac after Beijing launched an anti-dumping investigation into liquor products in January. The French president also said he welcomes more Chinese investors, and invited China to deploy its expertise in batteries, electric vehicles and solar panels.

The two also agreed to call for a worldwide ceasefire in all ongoing wars during the Olympic Games that start in Paris in late July.

Later on Tuesday, Xi will fly to Serbia and the 25th anniversary of NATO’s accidental bombing of Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade. He said in an article published in Politika, Serbia’s oldest daily newspaper, that he would “never forget” the incident. During the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, US missiles killed three Chinese journalists in a strike the White House later called a mistake and blamed on faulty maps.

The Chinese president will then conclude his trip in Hungary.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.