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Yuan Meng the latest chapter in France's panda history

President Emmanuel Macron met Zoo Parc de Beauval's celebrated new arrival as part of his 40th birthday celebrations - but France's relationship with pandas stretches back into the 19th century

As part of his 40th birthday celebrations with his family at Château de Chambord, President Emmanuel Macron visited Zoo Parc de Beauval, where - earlier this year - his wife Brigitte became 'godmother' to a newborn panda.

Reports say Mr Macron was able to get up close with the baby panda, named by Mrs Macron during a previous visit as Yuan Meng - which translates as “the accomplishment of a dream”.

Yuan Meng's birth has been billed as another success story for China's long-running panda diplomacy programme, and opened another chapter in France's relationship with the cuddly bears. The public will be allowed to see the animal from January 2018.

Ailuropoda melanoleuca (literally 'black-and-white cat-foot') or da xiongmao ('big bear-cat' in Chinese) are only found only in a small strip of mountainous terrain on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.

The first westerner to discover the bears was French zoologist and botanist Father Jean Pierre Armand.

In 1869, he was working in the remote mountains of western Sichuan province, where French Catholic missionaries has built a courtyard complex including a large Gothic-style church in 1839, when local hunters gave him the pelt of a young panda.

The 'discovery' led to a craze for pandas that hasn't diminished. China adopted them as a national symbol, as did the World Wildlife Fund when it was founded in 1961, and they have become a symbol of animal conservation worldwide.

Almost all the world's pandas are owned by China, which loans them to chosen zoos for around €1million per year, on condition that any cubs born will automatically become China's property. Being loaned a panda is widely seen as a reward for signing lucrative trade contracts with China. In 2010, two days after President Obama met the Dalai Lama against Chinese wishes, China repatriated cubs born in Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo in Washington DC.

The first panda to arrive in France was called Happy. He had been captured in the wild in 1938 and was exhibited all over Europe, including a stint at Vincennes Zoo from May 24 to June 6 1939.

The next pandas, Yen Yen and Li Li, arrived in France in December 1973, given to President Georges Pompidou by the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. The pair were originally thought to be one male and one female but were later discovered to be two males. Both had been captured from the wild, and Li Li died a few months after arriving in France from a tumour in the pancreas. Yen Yen lived at the zoo in Vincennes until 2000, when he too died of pancreatic disease. He was stuffed and is now exhibited at the Museum of Toulouse.

The current pandas, Yuan Zi and Huan Huan, arrived at the Zoo Parc Beauval in 2012, on loan from China until 2022. Their cub Yuan Meng will stay with his parents for up to three years, until he is judged old enough to live without his parents, when he will return to China and probably enter a breeding programme there.

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