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French public opinion on China in the age of COVID-19: Political distrust trumps economic opportunities « Sinophore Borderlands Europe Survey », Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic, 2020

This report is a result of a wide-scale study of public opinion on China in 13 European countries,1 conducted in September and October 2020, on the research sample representative with respect to gender, age, level of education, country region, and settlement density. Here, we focus on the French portion of the polling, building on the previously published report comparing the results across the 13 countries.

  • Overall, the French public is decisively negative about China: 62% of those polled have a negative or very negative opinion, while only 16% have a positive or very positive view of China, the rest being neutral (Figure 1). For a large majority of those surveyed, this negative feeling has worsened over the past three years (Figure 2).
  • China is the second most negatively-perceived country in France from those listed, just after North Korea, and followed by Russia, Israel, and the United States. On the contrary, French public opinion is very positive towards Germany, Japan, and the United-Kingdom, followed by Hong Kong and Vietnam (Figure 3).
  • COVID-19 is by far the most common theme associated with China by the French public in 2020, emphasizing the link between the pandemic and its country of origin. China is also often associated with “dictatorship”, “communism” and “authoritarian”, and various expressions related to the lack of human rights frequently come up. Although China is often regarded as the world’s factory for cheap products, it is also associated with technology (Figure 4).

The French do not seem overly preoccupied by China's geopolitical expansionism or by its military power, and they do not perceive the economic relationship as a peril. On the other hand, cyber-security, cooperation on global issues and the promotion of human rights are considered priorities in the dialogue with Beijing.

  • The French have prevailingly negative views on all China-related issues elicited in this survey, including trade, investment, or the Belt and Road Initiative (although 82% of those polled reported they were unaware of it), as well as the impact on the global environment, military power, and influence on democracies. The position of the French public on the question of human rights is particularly clear. Among the respondents, 74% consider the human rights situation in China as ranging from “somewhat bad” to “very bad”. One third considers it to be “very bad”. Only less than 7% think that the situation is good. In comparison with the EU, the USA, or Russia, the French public opinion views the human rights situation in China as the worst (Figure 5).
  • Notably, the negative view of economic issues makes France stand out when compared to the surveyed publics in other European countries. This general skepticism is mirrored by clear policy preferences: the promotion of trade and investments scored as the least favored policy approach to take towards China. Instead, the French public wants to address cybersecurity risks, followed by the policy preference to cooperate on global issues like climate change, epidemics, and counterterrorism, and to advance human rights and democratic reforms in China (Figure 14).

French public opinion is much more sensitive to political issues with regards to China than to economic opportunities. Respondents believe that the European Union is of prime importance for the economic development of France, before the United States, and China.

  • This does not imply that the French public does not recognize China’s power. China is seen as having the most economic strength, ahead of the US, while the EU ranks only behind Russia in the eyes of the French public (Figure 7). In addition, 55% of respondents consider China as important for France’s economic development, although less so than the EU (Figure 10).
  • China is assessed to be the third military power, somewhat behind the US and Russia, but significantly ahead of the EU (Figure 6). On China’s cultural attractiveness, the French respondents have divergent opinions: 28% think it is unattractive, while roughly 45% believe it is attractive (Figure 8).
  • Overall, French distrust towards China is very high, even slightly higher than towards Russia (Figure 11). The French public mostly believes its country’s foreign policy should be aligned with the EU, rather than with the US, Russia, or China (Figure 12). With regards to China specifically, although a large part of those surveyed does not have an opinion (43%), most respondents think that France should be proactive vis-à-vis China, either with its own independent policy (35%) or being the leading country within the EU (16%). Only 7% believe that France should follow the EU (Figure 15).
  • When asked about whom France should cooperate with on building the 5G network, 56% of respondents agree that France should rely on European stakeholders, followed by 38% favoring cooperation with Japanese companies. Only 25% of respondents agree to cooperate with Chinese companies, fewer than with those of the US or South Korea (Figure 13).
  • Regarding COVID-19, although the French public mostly considers that the greatest help to France came from the EU (51%), China is seen as the second country France received assistance from, far ahead of the US and Russia (Figure 16).
  • Most people in France tend to think that the virus naturally jumped to humans from animals (38%) or that it spread due to Chinese people eating bats and wild animals (34%). Still, a fairly significant portion of respondents (28%) agrees with the statement that the “COVID-19 was artificially made in a Chinese laboratory and spread intentionally”. Only 10% of respondents agree with the idea that the virus was brought to China by the US military (Figure 17).
  • Regarding the impact of COVID-19 on China, very few respondents (8%) think that China’s international reputation improved during the pandemic, which may imply most of them believe the opposite. However, 30% of those surveyed estimate that China has gained economically from the outcomes of the pandemic (Figure 17).

The report reveals a cross-partisan consensus on China in French public opinion. China does not create a major political division in France.

  • Negative views of China are high in France regardless of political affiliation, suggesting that there is a high level of consensus on China in French politics (Figure 18). Among voters from all political parties, the cumulative negative opinions (“very negative” and “negative”) towards China fluctuate between 58% and 69%. Symmetrically, voters from all different parties who have a positive feeling towards China are very few, between 13% and 19%, with the slight exception of Les Républicains (right), which display the highest positive opinion of China at only 23%.
  • This consensual view is confirmed also when we look at the 2017 presidential election: there is no noticeable difference among voters of opposing candidates in their perception of China (Figure 18). Among those who voted for the current president, Emmanuel Macron, 64% have a negative view of China, while among the voters of Marine Le Pen, they represent essentially the same share (63%). Similarly, considering those who have a positive opinion of China, they represent 18% of Marcon’s support and 16% of Le Pen’s.
French public opinion on China in the age of COVID-19: political distruct trumps economic opportunities.pdf
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