Behind the scenes of the French president’s trip to China — what one top exec thinks

Key Points
  • AccorHotels CEO Sebastien Bazin said the trip had been "extremely helpful" for France's corporate sector
  • Emmanuel Macron told China to open up its markets or face a protectionist backlash
It's time to build bridges with China: AccorHotels CEO

French President Emmanuel Macron has told China to open up its markets or face a protectionist backlash, during a three-day trade mission aimed at tapping more business from the global superpower.

One of the chief executives who traveled to China as part of Macron's 50-strong trade delegation told CNBC on Wednesday what the atmosphere was like during the trip.

"We've been listening to each other, we've been building some trust, we've been building pretty good and straightforward things, whether it be on access or rebalancing (trade), so it's been forthcoming, straightforward trust buildup," Sebastien Bazin, the chief executive of AccorHotels, said.

Bazin said the trip had been "extremely helpful" for France's corporate sector, although the visit, which took the delegation from the ancient imperial city of Xian to Beijing, had been a "long journey."

"It's been 2.5 days here (so far) and it's been a long journey. We've met a lot of people and our French president has been extremely well-prepared and to be in China and be talking with the Chinese government."

The Chinese and French governments have yet to announce any major deals, but have signed some smaller agreements.

Those announced include a 10 billion euro ($11.9 billion) nuclear contract for Areva and a partnership between Sodexo and Huawei. Airbus has agreed to boost its aircraft production from four to six planes per month in Tianjin, while President Macron said he was close to finalizing the sale of 184 A320 jets.

The AccorHotels group includes 20 hotel brands, ranging from economy to luxury, and is represented in 95 countries. It said it hosts 500,000 guests a day at its 4,200 hotel locations and has 250,000 employees.

French President Emmanuel Macron (centre L) and his wife Brigitte Macron (centre R-red coat) are given a tour during a visit to the Great Mosque of Xian in the northern Chinese city of Xian on January 8, 2018. Macron on January 8 launched a state visit to China in Xian -- the starting point of the ancient Silk Road -- in a nod to his counterpart's scheme to revive the famous trading route.

Accor is the largest non-Chinese hotel operator in Europe, Asia-Pacific, Pacific and South-East Asi. In 2014, it announced a "strategic alliance" with Chinese hotel group China Lodging. As such, Bazin said it was essential for his company to be in China.

"For me, it's critical to be much closer to the Chinese operator. It is the time to build bridges and to enhance each other's business," he said.

"Trying to be competitive as a non-Chinese operator in China is extremely difficult because they have a way of operating that is probably more efficient, more agile and lesser cost. So, for me, my main objective is to get my brand visible in China, which is why we've done a partnership with China Lodging."

"What I want is to benefit from the very large market — 120 million Chinese are today traveling outside of China. But the more they see and experience my brand in China, the greater likelihood I have to host them in Australia, in the Pacific and in Europe," he added.

France strikes deals with China

Macron's state visit to China was his first since he became president last May. A number of business deals and investment plans were reached during the trip.

The deals announced have failed to meet expectations, however, although Macron downplayed this, stating Wednesday that his "philosophy is not to flaunt the nominal amounts of contracts," Reuters reported.

Macron is keen to sign more trade and investment deals, but wary of giving too much away to China, a country that has been roundly criticized for not opening up its own markets to investment and trade while making the most of openness elsewhere. He told President Xi Jinping to open up Chinese markets to foreign investment, or risk a protectionist backlash.

Offering to make the first move, Macron said Tuesday that he could open French markets to Chinese investment if China did the same for France.

"On the economic front, we discussed it with President Xi, we know where we are going," Macron said.

"After a long situation of asymmetry, we decided several years ago to rebalance. I would like this rebalancing to translate itself into more Chinese investment in France and into more access to the Chinese market for French companies. It's the right way to get out from the current situation we're in."

President Xi signaled Tuesday that Beijing was receptive to foreign trade and investment.

"Looking at the future, China will insist on the basic state policy of open door," he said. "We will continue to open our door for construction and promote high-level trade freedom and investment facilitation. We will comprehensively implement the system of national treatment and negative list for market access. We will greatly broaden market access and protect the legal rights of foreign investments."