French President Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to win the heart of the Chinese leader on the first day of his state visit on Monday, offering him a horse of the elite French Republican Guard.
Macron is on a three-day tour of China starting with a stop in Xian, an eastern departure point of the ancient Silk Road where he visited the Terracotta Army with his wife Brigitte and will talk of past and future Sino-French relations.
An adept of soft diplomacy and symbols, Macron picked an 8-year old brown gelding named Vesuvius from the presidential cavalry corps and braved stringent Chinese quarantine checks to offer it to President Xi Jinping.
The choice of the gift, an “unprecedented diplomatic gesture” according to the French presidency, was made after the Chinese president expressed his fascination for the 104 horsemen who escorted him during his last visit to Paris in 2014.
It is the first time France has offered one of the elite cavalry corps’ horses and is also a response to China’s “panda diplomacy”, after Macron’s wife Brigitte became the godmother of a Chinese panda lent by Beijing to a zoo near Paris.
“It mattered a lot for the president, even if it was very complicated to import a horse for sanitary reasons. It’s a symbol of French excellence,” an Elysee official said.
Since his election last May, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon has shown his willingness to use symbols and history to win over his global counterparts.
Macron flattered Russian President Vladimir Putin in May with a meeting at the sumptuous palace of France’s former monarchy, built in Versailles by Louis XIV – the “Sun King” – to symbolize absolute power.
He also invited U.S. President Donald Trump to watch a military parade on the grandest avenue of Paris on Bastille Day last July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War One.
Trump later said Macron was doing a “terrific job”.
In Xian, Macron decided at the last minute to visit the Wild Goose Pagoda, a virtually unknown landmark in the West compared with the terracotta soldiers but well-known by Chinese people as a historic site for Buddhism.
The 40-year old French president is keen to gain more access for French companies to often protected Chinese markets and is traveling with a delegation of about 50 businessmen.