The French Won’t Forget Being Snubbed Over Submarines
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The way the French tell it, they never saw it coming. The first hint of the impending slight dropped on Sept. 15, when officials in Paris and the media got a whiff of the new security partnership on a late European afternoon.
The pact announced that day, known as Aukus, will see the U.K. and the U.S. share classified military capabilities with Australia to develop more nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific. It’s a coup for the U.K., which has been on a quest to assert itself on the global stage after leaving the European Union.
The formal announcements, though, made no mention of France. A naval power with its own footprint in the region, it discovered that Australia was reneging on a previous deal to acquire a dozen French non-nuclear submarines. It had also been brutally cut out of a key strategic decision involving the containment of China.
France’s fury was instant. The usually restrained Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced the wheeling and dealing that had taken place for months without his country knowing. France focused its anger on the U.S. and Australia, recalling its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra, but dismissed the U.K. as a bit player whose role as a “spare tire” didn’t merit a diplomatic slap.
What Le Drian called a “stab in the back” predates the Group of Seven summit in June, a rare moment during the pandemic when the four leaders involved came together with others on an English beach. French President Emmanuel Macron blithely sparred with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over Brexit, threw his arm over U.S. President Joe Biden’s shoulders, and invited Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison over to Paris. He was, according to his own diplomats, unaware of the secret plan the other three had been hatching.
Everyone had their agenda, it seems, and has their own version of events. The countries involved all belong to a post-World War II alliance, but they don’t necessarily view the threat from an increasingly assertive China in the same light. France, for one, hasn’t been as hawkish as its English-speaking allies.
For Johnson, the pact is evidence that his country, once a great maritime empire, can still flex its muscles now that it’s free of the EU. Details of the divorce from the bloc are still being negotiated, with financial regulation, trade in Northern Ireland, and other matters still unresolved. One promised benefit—a quick trade deal with the U.S.—remains a mirage: Johnson himself has said that Biden has “a lot of fish to fry.”
Johnson’s new foreign secretary, Liz Truss, wrote an editorial 24 hours after the announcement praising the U.K.’s “readiness to be hard-headed.” The New York Times and Le Monde, the establishment newspapers in the U.S. and France, saw it as a win for the post-Brexit U.K.
Aukus also sends a message to France from the U.S.: Under Biden, keeping archrival China in check is the foreign policy imperative, and if feelings get hurt along the way, so be it. There wasn’t much consultation with the country’s allies on pulling out of Afghanistan, either. Biden’s team set up a clear-the-air phone chat with an upset Macron. In the meantime, Le Drian will stand in for the French president at the United Nations podium.
Australia hasn’t lost much sleep over ripping up the French deal, which was worth $65 billion. Australia’s long-term strategic needs have shifted. Morrison publicly acknowledged France’s “disappointment,” yet also insisted his reservations about the project had been known to the French. France emphatically denies that: “The Australians have never told us of their desire to acquire nuclear propulsion, not even when we have explicitly asked them about it in recent months during our discussions,” Le Drian told the newspaper Ouest France.
Even as French anger inevitably makes way for acceptance, there will be a fight ahead over how Australia can compensate France for the canceled deal, and likely a rethink of France’s role in NATO, the military alliance that Macron once said was experiencing “brain death.” It was a sense of unfair treatment that prompted Charles de Gaulle to pull France out of NATO’s command structure in the 1960s.
With an election coming next year, Macron has a domestic audience to cater to. His main rival, the nationalist Marine Le Pen, decried France’s “public humiliation,” as the president tries to rally European support. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the treatment of France “unacceptable,” and high-level trade talks with the U.S. planned for later this month may be delayed.
There’s a limit to how much France can lash out, and indeed how many of its 26 EU allies are willing to get behind it. There is, though, a wind of change. Le Drian drew an important distinction, describing how France sees the balance of power in Asia. He claimed that Aukus is “part of an Indo-Pacific strategy that prioritizes confrontation … and that does not bother with questions of sovereignty.” France, he said, doesn’t underestimate competition with China, “but we avoid prioritizing a military confrontation.” —With John Follain and Alberto Nardelli
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