France's Poorest Region Looks to China, Not Macron, for Help

(Bloomberg) -- In the northern French Hauts-de-France region, a traditional stronghold of the protectionist, anti-immigrant National Front, constituents are banking on Beijing rather than Paris to turn around the area’s economic malaise.

At the helm of the push is Xavier Bertrand, 53, the president of the province -- home to 6 million people and the nation’s highest unemployment and poverty rates. It’s where the port of Dunkirk faces the U.K. and the European A1 trade thoroughfare from Paris passes by.

France's Poorest Region Looks to China, Not Macron, for Help

Bertrand recently returned from a trip to China, where he met with potential investors in his bid to remake Hauts-de-France into a logistics and technology hub. The move to boost the economy of the province comes as France and the European Union rethink how equitable China is with its international commerce and whether the Asian nation’s trade expansion poses a security threat to the West.

“I am convinced in the years to come China will prevail as the main economic partner,” Bertrand said in a telephone interview. “Globally, China is my priority” for investment in the region, he said.

The German Card

Bertrand became president of the regional council in 2016 as a Republican, siphoning off votes that would have gone to Marine Le Pen’s National Front that year by taking a tough stance on migration. He renounced the party the following year because it was trending too far to the right and created an independent party dubbed “The Factory.”

The conservative politician has positioned himself as a possible challenger to Emmanuel Macron in 2022 and has taken a more conciliatory approach toward China than the French president. He has also expressed skepticism toward Berlin and other EU member states in their approach to global commerce.

Since Germany is Europe’s biggest trading partner with China, “is it playing the European game or is it playing its own card?” Bertrand asked. “Is everyone playing their own interest here?”

With China promoting its “Belt and Road” trade and infrastructure initiative, western countries have warned about Beijing’s intentions as it invests overseas and augments its military. Macron -- who warned China’s modern-day “Silk Road” couldn’t go just one way -- has advocated that the EU strengthen its defenses in the face of the trade competition, saying the bloc must end its “naive” approach. France’s largest bilateral trade shortfall, 30 billion euros ($36 billion), is with China.

France's Poorest Region Looks to China, Not Macron, for Help

Bertrand traveled this month to Hanghzou, the capital city of the Zhejiang Province in east China, to meet with Alibaba Inc. Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang. “Alibaba has a different strategy than Amazon, they’re looking for partnerships,” Bertrand said.

The regional president insists that his China policy isn’t naive, but he sees these investments as a way to boost the economy of Hauts-de-France, which has the lowest gross domestic product per capita in the country. The North, with its bygone industrial glory -- coal mines, steel works and textile factories -- is a tormented region that saw some of the worst battles of the two World Wars. Bertrand’s goal since taking office has been to turn the north of France into the “logistics industry hub” for continental Europe.

“Macron talks a lot about his European strategy, but will he be able to convince Merkel?” Bertrand said, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We will see what his powers of persuasion are. Even the optimistic speeches are hitting the wall of reality.”

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