Claude Martin's "Grand Témoin": France and Germany - Partners and rivals in Asia

25 October 2023


On September 21, 2023, the Foundation was honored to welcome Claude Martin, one of France's most eminent diplomats, who has held positions of great responsibility in exceptional circumstances. In a lecture entitled "France and Germany: partners and rivals in Asia", he looked back on a remarkable career that took him around the world, where he played a key role in French diplomacy.
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In China, Claude Martin was posted three times, notably as ambassador from 1990 to 1993. During this period, he was a privileged witness to defining moments in Chinese history. From the breakdown of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to the opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, via the tragic events of Tiananmenin 1989 and the crisis linked to the delivery of frigates and combat aircraft to Taiwan from 1991 to 1992, Claude Martin was at the heart of these major historical events.

In Europe, Claude Martin also played a leading role. He made a significant contribution to Britain's accession treaty in 1972, marking a turning point in the history of the European Union. Later, as Secrétaire Général Adjoint du Quai d'Orsay, he played an active part in the great eastward enlargement of the 1990s, promoting the integration of new countries into the European Union.

His exceptional nine-year stint as ambassador de France en Allemagne (1999-2007) was a particularly defining moment in his career. During this period, he oversaw the installation of the new French embassy on Berlin's Pariser Platz, testifying to the importance of Franco-German relations.
Recognized for his achievements, Claude Martin was elevated to the rank of French ambassador in 2006, crowning his exceptional diplomatic career.

An alumnus of ENA (École nationale d'administration), Claude Martin is also proud to be counted among the alumni of Inalco (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales), where he studied Chinese, Russian and Burmese.

Back to the lecture

In this "Grand Témoin" lecture, Claude Martin, former French Ambassador to China (1990-1993) and Germany (1999-2007), looks back on his diplomatic memories.

Claude Martin entered Langues O' in 1961, on graduating from Sciences Po. In addition to a pre-existing interest in Europe, and Germany in particular, he nurtured a strong attraction to Asia. China in particular, at a time when the Cultural Revolution was taking place and the idea of the Middle Kingdom's power was developing, seemed to him like a volcano in full eruption, capable of playing a role in world affairs. Claude Martin was quick to see the potential for Franco-German cooperation. While working as a cultural attaché at the French embassy in Beijing, he was surprised by the lack of a German presence in China at the time, apart from a representative from East Germany, with whom he initiated contacts. Back in Paris, he emphasized the importance for France of working jointly with Germany in China.

After graduating from ENA, he joined the economic affairs department of the Quai d'Orsay, then went on to join the cabinets of four successive ministers. In his various positions, he sought to establish the beginnings of Franco-German consultation on China, with a focus on trade affairs, and emphasized the importance of setting up concerted negotiation mechanisms leading to the creation of a common external approach to trade affairs. This accelerated shift to an exclusively "Community" trade policy led to advances that enabled France and Germany to conclude joint trade agreements. The signing of the Élysée Treaty in 1988 saw the creation of a Franco-German Economic and Financial Council, making Germany France's leading economic partner.

In 1978, Claude Martin spoke of his wish to return to China, with the aim of continuing to work towards a common trade policy, which would encourage European countries to sign Community agreements and agree on a common external tariff. From 1978 to 1984, however, he described the French trade policy as a "permanent crossroads", as they systematically competed with Germany for market share in China. These persistent trade tensions between France and Germany made it particularly difficult to apply Article 113 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) on the establishment of a common system of value-added tax to regulate the operation of member states' VAT.

Claude Martin eventually returned to Brussels for a brief period, during which he made several attempts to advance the idea of a common industrial policy converging towards the formation of joint industrial groups. However, Germany categorically rejected this idea, because of its rejection of French-style dirigisme. Nevertheless, he continues to enjoy good relations with Klotz Seller, former German Ambassador to the Philippines, even though the latter sees Asia above all as a major market for the Germans. Claude Martin questions the foundations of this common policy and regrets that it does not include a defense component in view of the strategic issues raised.

On his return to Paris after several years in China, he was appointed "Secretary General at the Quai d'Orsay" by Alain Juppé. The latter's main objective was to build a European core around France, Germany and England through the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, with a view to strengthening the European community, now enlarged to 27 member states.

The European approach to China remained, however, without much mechanical influence through which a great capacity to make itself heard had been lost, according to the French Ambassador.

During his career as Ambassador to Germany (1999-2007), Claude Martin was strongly encouraged by Jacques Chirac to return to China as French Ambassador to China. However, after German reunification, he saw the opportunity to re-engage in a dialogue around the implementation of a common foreign policy between France and Germany placed under the sign of bilateral concertation.

Throughout his career as a diplomat, Claude Martin was torn between battles and disappointments. Among the latter, France's entry into the Atlantic Alliance in 1949 led, in his view, to a loss of French foreign diplomatic influence in international affairs. The result was the liquidation of Franco-German nuclear cooperation, as well as industrial cooperation, but above all, the loss of France's ability to play its role in Asia, and especially in China.

Concluding his speech, Claude Martin admits to considering himself a "cooled European", questioning in particular Europe's weight in Asia. He believes that the weakening of its influence is due in particular to the fact that Europe talks a lot but acts little. He acknowledges that dialogue - rather than sanctions - remains the necessary instrument of diplomacy, enabling us not only to exchange views but also to get to know the countries we are talking to and to negotiate. In his view, most international crises are avoidable, the result of misunderstandings fostered by not speaking the same language and not wanting to understand the other. Claude Martin brought the conference to a close with this declaration: "Diplomacy is based on knowledge of the other's language".

Also find the podcast of this conference on the various streaming platforms

Edited by: Marie Habre / Fondation Inalco

Photo credits: ©Hannah ASSOULINE/
Copyright: ©Hannah ASSOULINE/