Under Hollande, France is reviving ties with Japan while following a policy of balancing China and Japan
Japan has an overwhelmingly positive image among French administration officials. France and Japan have deep political ties with frequent interaction between administrations, which have helped to build a relationship of confidence between officials. A diplomat described the French-Japanese partnership as “outstanding”, especially since the beginning of a “2+2” dialogue, a meeting of ministers of foreign affairs and ministers of defence in January 2014.
This positive perception of Japan among French officials started to evolve in the 1990s, especially under the influence of President Jacques Chirac, a noted Japanophile. Under Nicolas Sarkozy, France came closer to China at the expense of Japan, but François Hollande is following a policy of balancing between the two and is reviving ties with Japan.
Japan is perceived as a good and very reliable economic partner, benefitting from a professional, effective and hard-working workforce. Moreover, it is also seen as a modern and technology-oriented economy. France and Japan have very strong economic relations: France is the second biggest destination for Japanese direct investment in Europe; Japan is the biggest Asian investor in France; and bilateral trade amounts to €15 billion (1.6 percent of French trade).
Most respondents stressed the fact that Japan is a very closed market. Many sectors such as defence or aeronautics are the preserve of the US. However, France is pushing politically to open the Japanese market, especially in the area of public tenders. There are developing cooperation in sensitive sectors like nuclear energy. An official explained that entering the Japanese market requires heavy initial investment, but is very rewarding in the long term, especially when confidence is established with Japanese partners, and when French companies demonstrate their commitment to quality and their reliability. However, French investors tend to be put off by the closed nature of the Japanese market and tend to prefer China, even though the return on investment rate is much more uncertain.
On foreign policy, French diplomats described Japan as an “outstanding” partner. The two countries have a strategic partnership and share common values such as democracy and liberalism: as one official said to us, they are seen as member of the same “club” as Western Europe and North America.
However, there is consensus on the idea that Japan could and should do more on the international stage. French officials and academics alike criticised Japan’s absence from many international crises including Syria and the refugee crisis. Japanese “chequebook” diplomacy is deemed insufficient and our respondents thought Japan should have a more proactive role on the international stage. Nevertheless, France is sympathetic to Japan’s security concerns regarding the rise of China in the region.
All respondents described Japan’s soft power image as being very good in France. Although people can sometimes have a cliché image of Japanese culture (“zen”, “sushi”, “geishas”), France is very interested in Japanese culture. This interest has deep roots, as it started with the Japonisme movement in final years of the 19th century. There is a long-standing interest in Japan’s traditional culture by French elites, but in the last few decades, a new kind of interest has grown amongst a popular audience, focussed on Japanese modern and youth culture (mangas, anime, cosplay…)
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.