Why Is France Mad? It’s Not Just the Submarine Deal
(Bloomberg) -- When France recalled its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia in mid-September, news reports focused on its ire over their secretly negotiated submarine deal, which prompted Australia to back out of a $66 billion contract to buy French subs. While the cancellation stung, the roots of France’s vexation at being left out of an expanded U.S., U.K. and Australian defense pact, christened Aukus, are deeper. France sees itself not only as a major power in the Pacific and Indian oceans, but as a resident power, on account of French territories in the region that are home to 1.6 million of its citizens. In recent years, the country has increased its economic and military engagement in the region as part of an effort to serve as a balance between competitors China and the U.S.
1. Which territories are linked to France?
France’s Indo-Pacific territories, all islands or island groups, include Mayotte and Reunion in the Indian Ocean; in the Pacific they include Scattered Islands and French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and Clipperton. The islands have various statuses in relation to the mainland, with two -- Mayotte and Reunion -- considered fully part of French territory and subject to French laws. The island residents hold French nationality and make up about 4% of France’s population of 67 million. They can vote for the president and send representatives to France’s two houses of parliament. There are also more than 8,000 French soldiers stationed in the region.
2. How’s the French presence been received?
There’s long been controversy about it fueled in large part by the nuclear testing France began in the region in the 1960s. Anger peaked when two French operatives in 1985 helped sink the Rainbow Warrior, a ship belonging to the environmental group Greenpeace, as it departed Auckland for a protest against a planned French nuclear test. David Lange, then New Zealand prime minister, called the bombing state-sponsored terrorism. Regional governments, led by Australia, saw France as a destabilizing actor and a colonial interloper. Relations improved in the early 2000s, after France ended the testing and agreed to address independence demands from New Caledonia with the Noumea Accord. A final resolution on the status of New Caledonia, whose nickel and potential hydrocarbon resources make it France’s most prized overseas territory, is due at the end of 2021. Calls for greater autonomy on the islands are fueled by poverty rates much higher and living standards much lower than those in mainland France. In recent years, as French navy activity in the region has intensified, tensions have flared with China, which has been trying to expand its sway in the area through investment and trade, as well as through military maneuvers in the South China Sea.
3. What are France’s military interests in the region?
In a 2018 speech in Sydney, President Emmanuel Macron called France an “Indo-Pacific” power for the first time and spoke of the importance of protecting French interests from China’s new assertiveness. Macron’s strategy has relied heavily on partnerships with countries such as Australia, Singapore and Japan through arms cooperation, sharing information and joint maritime exercises that project France’s hard power. Macron sees France as a potential mediating and stabilizing power. The area accounts for nearly 60% of the country’s permanent overseas military presence. It hosts four infantry regiments, and gendarmerie units are spread across several islands. Lightly-armed patrol ships combat trafficking, protect fisheries and provide aid in the event of natural disasters. French war ships regularly patrol the South China Sea and ports of call in regional states.
4. What about its economic interests?
French policy is also driven by the strategic resources and markets the region offers. Its islands control vast expanses of ocean that give France the second-largest exclusive economic zone in the world after the U.S., with 11 million square kilometers (42 million square miles) in which it has jurisdiction to exploit the resources adjacent to its shores. Those include fish, seabed minerals and the biological diversity of reefs. Over the past decade or so, economic ties have increased dramatically between France and the Indo-Pacific, home to 60% of the world population and some of the planet’s busiest trade routes. French trade with the area has quadrupled in the last 30 years. France says more than one-third of its exports outside the European Union now go to the region, with China, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong its top trading partners. France exports not just textiles and beverages, but aeronautics and manufactured goods, like cars. French direct investments have also significantly increased, by about 75% since 2008 to 320 billion euros in 2018. More than 7,000 French subsidiary companies are present in the region, with revenues rising by 40% between 2010 and 2016.
5. What’s the history of these ties?
As France sought to expand its empire in the 1600s, it began building a presence in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. The French were primarily interested in establishing commercial outposts to generate wealth. The islands went on to become part of lucrative sugar colonies that were dependent on the labor of African enslaved people. But French territorial ambitions were also driven by rivalries with neighbors like Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain. By the 19th century, France had claimed possession over many of the islands it still holds today and consolidated its presence, setting up naval supply points and penal colonies. French officials remained wary of the regional ambitions of its European competitors and of any challenges to its sovereignty.
The Reference Shelf
- A Carnegie Endowment report on France and other powers in the Indo-Pacific region.
- A Center For Strategic & International Studies paper on France as a bridge between Europe and the region.
- Bloomberg Opinion’s Lionel Laurent says France’s chagrin over Aukus is about more than French pride.
- IISS’s 2021 Military Balance details French naval assets in the Indo-Pacific.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.