It has been a rough couple of weeks for France and its strategic relationships. Throughout the first half of September, French officials warned Malian counterparts against contracting roughly 1,000 mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has stated that these paramilitary forces are “absolutely irreconcilable” with the presence of French troops.
As of September 15, France had bigger problems. Australia effectively cancelled a 2016 contract with Naval Group for the purchase of diesel-powered submarines. The French government is looking into ways to compensate Naval Group’s losses – with funds obviously fronted by French taxpayers.
France’s reaction to AUKUS has been dramatic. France withdrew its ambassadors from Australia and the United States (interestingly omitting the U.K., who are only charged with “constant opportunism”). Le Drian called AUKUS “a stab in the back”; to make matters worse, it seems the Australians approached the U.K., not the other way around. Australian accounts of events that led up to AUKUS have been dismissed as duplicities or lies. The upcoming April 10, 2022 French election will entail debate and self-reflection on France’s place in a network of allies, with the fallout from AUKUS shaping that national conversation.
The French are justified in their sentiment that they deserved better. This is not at all to deny that Canberra had its reasons for invalidating its contract with Naval Group, but Australia should have been more considerate of French interests, especially because of the naval resources the latter brings to the Indo-Pacific.
France has consistently been the preeminent European advocate for a stronger Indo-Pacific strategy; as a resident power, France values multilateral diplomacy and military presence in the region. In light of the cancellation, the French Foreign Ministry reminded the world that France is the “only European nation present in the Indo-Pacific with nearly two million of its nationals and more than 7,000 soldiers, France is a reliable partner which will continue to keep its commitments there, as it has always done.” It was on a warship in 2018 at Sydney’s Garden Military base that President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed a new French strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
In many ways, the longstanding Australia-France security relationship was trending toward more cooperation and congeniality. Naval cooperation is a cornerstone of the Australia-France strategic partnership, making the unilateral cancellation of the submarine contract harder to swallow. The French naval defense industry thrives in Australia, evident in the significant French presence at the 2019 PACIFIC International Maritime Exposition in Sydney. France respects Australia’s stature in international politics and security; for instance, in 2017 the chief of staff of the French Navy grouped the Australians as one of “four main partners” alongside great powers the United States, the U.K., and Germany. In the past year, France has ramped up its naval activity in the South China Sea – in alignment with Australia’s interests, another resident power concerned about the hard power of China’s massive navy.
Up until September 15, Australian-French naval relations were bourgeoning. Late last year, the Royal Australian Navy hosted three French naval vessels at a base in Perth. In February of this year, French nuclear attack submarine Émeraude transited and patrolled the South China Sea; French Defense Minister Florence Parly said that this was “striking proof of our French Navy’s capacity to deploy far away and for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners.” In April, Australia participated in the multinational French-led exercise in the Bay of Bengal called La Pérouse. Following this exercise, from 16 to 19 April, France’s amphibious assault helicopter carrier Tonnerre, in tandem with the frigate Surcouf, sailed with two Australian ships in a joint patrol.
On August 30, French and Australian foreign and defense ministers kicked off the Australia-France Foreign and Defense (2+2) Ministerial Consultations. The ministers issued a joint statement that expressed mutual interests in stability in the Taiwan Strait, among many other issues. These officials went further to advocate for integrating Taiwan into global governance institutions. Efforts such as these suggest growingly aligned concern over China’s actions on the international stage.
Without a doubt, Australia had several good reasons to opt for AUKUS, not the least of which is the fact that merely being in negotiations for nuclear submarines gives Canberra an elevated status among great powers. The logic of this argument, that nuclearization translates to status elevation, is perennial. There appears to be some truth to it in this case. Acquiring nuclear submarines means Australia will join an elite group of ownership, consisting of the United Nations Security Council’s five members plus India (even if the submarines are nuclear-powered, not armed).
Still, both points can be true: That Australia had good reasons for AUKUS and that France deserved better, especially considering that Paris prioritized Australia as an Indo-Pacific strategic partner.