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France’s Le Maire presses China on market access and lobbies for electric car investment

BEIJING (AP) — The French finance minister said Sunday he pressed Chinese leaders to open their markets wider to foreign companies and lobbied for investment in France’s electric car industry, as the European Union’s second-largest economy followed Washington in reviving post-COVID economic talks amid tension over Beijing’s surging trade surpluses.

Bruno Le Maire also defended Paris’s controls on foreign access to technology after authorities said two Chinese citizens are under investigation for what news reports say is possible smuggling of French-made processor chips with military uses to China and Russia.

Le Maire met Saturday with Vice Premier He Lifeng, Beijing’s top envoy on economic issues. He followed Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who visited Beijing on July 9-10 as part of U.S. efforts to revive frosty relations with China.

Chinese officials gave Le Maire and Yellen a warm welcome as part of efforts to reverse an economic slump by reviving foreign investor interest. But Beijing has given no indication of possible changes in technology and other policies that its trading partners say violate Chinese market-opening commitments.

Officials of the 27-nation European Union are trying to narrow a trade deficit with China that swelled to 396 billion euros ($432 billion) last year. Le Maire cited cosmetics, aerospace and agriculture as possible areas for more French exports.

“There is a need to improve access to the Chinese market. I think that it was at the core of our discussions,” Le Maire said in an interview at the French Embassy. “We want to have a stronger economic relationship between Europe and China, between France and China, which means to get access for all European goods.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government has looked to Europe as an alternative market and source of technology since Washington tightened controls on access to U.S. processor chips and other high-tech goods and hiked tariffs on imports from China in a feud over its industry development ambitions.

Le Maire and Chinese officials pledged to cooperate on climate change, financing for developing countries and nuclear power. They announced plans to set up a group to settle a dispute over access to China’s market for cosmetics, a major French export.

Le Maire also lobbied for investment from China’s fast-growing electric car industry. He was due to fly to the southern city of Shenzhen to meet Wang Chuanfu, founder of BYD Auto, one of the world’s biggest electric vehicle producers. BYD Auto and other Chinese brands are starting to sell in developed markets including Europe and Japan. Chinese battery supplier CATL has set up a factory in Germany to supply automaker BMW.

“We want China to make investments in France in electric vehicles,” Le Maire said. “In the climate transition, there is a place for Chinese investment in France, which allows us to reinforce our economic relations and also speed up action against global warming.”

The talks were overshadowed by Russia’s war against Ukraine and complaints China might be helping Moscow evade Western sanctions, but Le Maire said he didn’t discuss the war with Chinese officials. However, he said it was in Beijing’s interest to end the 17-month-old war. President Emmanuel Macron’s security adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, said this month China was delivering “military equipment” to Russia but gave no details.

“I want to make very clear that we want this war to go to an end as soon as possible,” Le Maire said. “Indeed, (it is) in the interest of China, it is in the interests of the global growth to have peace as soon as possible.”

Le Maire also defended French controls on technology exports and foreign investment in high-tech industry. French authorities are investigating two Chinese citizens associated with chip producer Ommic who the newspaper Le Parisien said face possible charges of exporting chips to a Chinese armaments maker using forged documents.

French counter-espionage officials believe a Chinese investor who bought control of Ommic in 2018 was trying to transfer chip manufacturing technology to China, according to the newspaper. The ruling Communist Party is trying to develop its own chip industry, but Washington has blocked access to advanced manufacturing tools and persuaded allies Japan and the Netherlands to impose their own restrictions.

Chinese authorities complain their companies are unfairly targeted by restrictions on access to foreign technology. They have warned curbs on access to semiconductors will disrupt smartphone and other industries.

“Everybody can understand that France wants to protect its key technologies,” Le Maire said. “We don’t want any foreign country to get access to those French sovereign technologies.”

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