Hurt French pride rather than economic damage has been the most serious casualty of the week-old diplomatic crisis which began when Australia, the UK and US announced their Aukus alliance and cancelled a multibillion-euro Australian contract to purchase French submarines.
“The three countries showed contempt for us when they made this deal,” says Admiral Jean-Louis Lozier, a consultant to the French Institute for International Relations,. The admiral is a veteran of 39 years in the French navy and commanded three nuclear submarines.
“The loss of the contract is secondary,” Lozier says. “The real problem is how one treats one’s allies. The submarine contract may be specifically French, but Aukus was formed in secret, without notifying the Europeans.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called President Joe Biden “Trump without the tweets”. At a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Monday night, Le Drian again denounced US “reflexes from a period that we hoped was over”.
The telephone conversation which Biden requested with President Emmanuel Macron has not yet materialised. There are no plans for Le Drian to meet his US counterpart Anthony Blinken, though both are in the UN building in Manhattan, New York.
Paris’s flap with its estranged English-speaking allies has highlighted France’s precarious status as a great power.
“Our ambitions are too great, and our means are very limited,” says Jean-Dominique Merchet, a renowned defence expert and columnist for L’Opinion newspaper. “When the US says, ‘this is serious business and you French have nothing to contribute’, we are marginalised, in the same way the Europeans were in the evacuation from Kabul.”
Merchet compares the present moment to the 1956 Suez crisis, when France, the UK and Israel invaded Egypt in the hope of reversing Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. “The Americans and Soviets said, ‘stop being stupid’, and we had to leave.”
Russia is sending mercenaries from the Wagner group to Mali as France pulls out half its 5,000 troops there. France has lost influence in Syria and Libya. “How can we continue to count in world affairs?” Merchet asks.
Australia had planned to spend €56 billion over several decades on the submarines, but it was from the outset a Franco-American contract. Lockheed Martin was to have provided all electronics and weapons. Australia had already paid France €900 million for work done by the French company Naval Group. Contracts were signed piecemeal as work continued. Australia estimated that France would earn roughly €10 billion over the life of the project.
Lozier and Merchet say Australian allegations of cost overruns and delays are specious. Both are common in such contracts, and much of the difficulty arose from Australia’s lack of an industrial base.
Australia broke the contract because it wanted US-built nuclear-powered submarines, Lozier says. “If the Australians were worried about time and money, why did they choose something that will take much longer and cost much more to build?” asks Merchet.
When Lozier’s nuclear attack submarine stopped over in Australia 20 years ago, he recalls, “the Australian sailors told me, ‘we want one like yours!’ It was politically inaccessible for them.”
Australia has long been a zealously anti-nuclear country. It has no civil nuclear power plants, and when the Australian government issued bids for tender for submarines at the end of the 2000s, it was for diesel-powered vessels. “Now it boils down to ‘which are we more afraid of, nuclear technology or the Chinese’?” says Merchet.
The US has broken an agreement among the nuclear powers on the UN Security Council by agreeing to sell nuclear submarines, Lozier says. “The Americans have opened a Pandora’s box. I am not worried about Australia. But what if North Korea or Pakistan asks China for nuclear-powered submarines tomorrow?”
France showed its contempt for Britain by not recalling its ambassador to London when it brought envoys back from Canberra and Washington. But the first small success in Boris Johnson’s “global Britain” was galling for Macron, who has often predicted that the UK will eventually return to the EU fold.
France has been denouncing US “hegemony” since the 1950s. Attempts to forge a European defence policy independent of the US have been a constant. The Afghan and Aukus experiences make Macron more determined to promote European defence during the French presidency of the EU next year.
Despite encouraging remarks by top-ranking EU officials allied with Macron, Merchet says French efforts cannot succeed.
“For the Germans, Dutch, Italians, even neutrals like the Swedes – not to mention the east Europeans and Baltics – security is called Nato. The alliance with the US plays the same symbolic role for them that nuclear deterrence plays for France.”
Admiral Lozier says he has been saddened by the row. “Obviously the behaviour of political authorities can be very annoying, because I have always had excellent relations with my comrades in the royal navy and the US navy.”
The epoch when Gen Charles de Gaulle sought an independent French path, equidistant from both superpowers, are over. “Once the anger subsides the necessity of reconciling with the US will prevail,” Merchet predicts. “We need them against terrorism. We are not going to clash.”