What’s with the Gallic ire?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 17, 2021

Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

France is hopping mad that the US, UK and Australia have announced a new three-way defence alliance. The subtext was obvious: Australia gets to share America’s highly sensitive nuclear submarine, something to which only Britain hitherto had access.

It’s an anti-China move but someone other than China is annoyed. France is hopping mad at the so-called AUKUS agreement. The ostensible reason is that Australia walked away from a deal it awarded to French bidders in 2016 to build a new fleet of diesel-powered submarines. France may yet try and recover the billions it has lost by Australia breaking the contract.

But there is a lot more to the Gallic ire. The French don’t like the way the three ‘Anglo’ powers allegedly sneaked around to set up a cliquey club of their own. “It’s a stab in the back,” France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio. “We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed.”

Mr Le Drian and French Defense Minister Florence Parly jointly complainted that the US was demonstrating “a lack of consistency, which France can only notice and regret.” Mr Le Drian added that the “unilateral and brutal” move was something “[former president Donald] Trump would do.” Ouch.

The sense is of a jilted lover. Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the US, has suggested that Charles de Gaulle would have responded to this moment by opening a dialogue with Beijing. That would be taking things a bit far but it’s true that hurt lovers do, often, make strange decisions on the rebound.

But The Atlantic’s Tom McTague has said that what may be underway is the very reconfiguration, even if very slightly, of Western geopolitics. “The shocks of Trump and Brexit in 2016 — the year Australia signed its original submarine deal with France — have led, inadvertently and circuitously, to today’s world, where a political consensus now exists in the US, Britain, and Australia that Chinese power must be contained,” he wrote. “Taken together, the end of the war in Afghanistan, the pivot against China, and the prioritization of the old Anglo alliances over the EU are all grand strategic moves.”

As the Washington Post has noted, “fittingly for any story involving submarines, there’s a lot more to it beneath the surface”.