Breathtaking Hypocrisy: France and Its Naval Sales

12 October 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Paris’s anger at having lost the contract to supply conventionally-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy is redolent with unmitigated hypocrisy.

 

Background

To say that Paris was upset after the formation of the new AUKUS security alliance was announced by Canberra, London and Washington would be an understatement. It was, specifically, the announcement by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that his government would scrap the contract with France’s Naval Group to build conventionally-powered submarines in favour of purchasing nuclear-propelled ones from the US and the UK that caused the French government to throw a tantrum. It was, even more specifically, the fact that the loss of the $90 billion tender would be portrayed by his political opponents, who are rising in France’s polls, as yet another loss by an incompetent president that led to the demonstrations of manufactured rage.

To demonstrate just how strongly Mr Macron and his government felt about being stabbed in the back by allies, France’s ambassadors to Canberra and Washington were recalled to Paris ‘to show how unhappy we are and that there is a serious crisis between us and to re-evaluate our positions to defend our interests’, as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put it, adding, ‘There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt.’ In other words, it was not just the loss of the $90 billion contract; Gallic pride had been sullied.

 

Comment

It has now been announced in Paris, after what has probably been gauged to be the appropriate period of time, that the Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, would return to Canberra. Not wishing to be seen as accepting the inevitability of the loss of the submarine contract, Mr Thebault pointed out that he was returning with clear instructions to re-evaluate the France-Australia relationship. That instruction would be in line with Mr Macron’s refusal to talk to Mr Morrison, but according to Mr Thebault, it is Australia that was “childish” because it did not “consult” with France before the announcement of the AUKUS pact. It appears, once again, that Gallic pride is not to be taken lightly. So, as if to pre-empt any such unwarranted notions, Mr Thebault also made it a point to note that this situation goes beyond the submarine contract. As he put it,

(Whether we are friends again) remains to be seen. That is exactly the reason for which I have been instructed to come back. Our relationship was not only about a contract and that is exactly the problem. That has created a breach of trust and the crisis between our countries is that this was only the tip of a much deeper co-operation. Cancelling all that without any warning, without any previous discussion, without minimum decency of talking to your ally is creating a deep crisis. We’ll have to revise everything.

On a slightly different note, it also appears that France believed that Australia should have spent $90 billion to obtain French-designed submarines that were hopelessly inadequate for its requirements. Paris appears to have believed that its pride trumped Australia’s national interests. That is an interesting, albeit inconsistent, point of view. A case in point is France’s refusal in 1986 to allow UK-based US Air Force B-52 bomber aircraft to use its airspace to bomb Libya in retaliation for the violence that that country enacted across southern Europe. One of the reasons for its refusal was France’s negotiations with Lebanon to obtain the release of eight of its citizens who were being held hostage by pro-Iranian groups. France had no qualms at the time in denying a foreign country a request in order that it could meet its own goals. It claimed that the US was ‘setting the stage for a new “chain of violence” with its bombing raids’.

That was not, by any means, an isolated incident. In 2014, France nearly sold Russia two advanced helicopter carriers and the technology to build two more. When Washington complained, the French Defence Minister retorted that the sale would go ahead because it was only selling “unarmed hulls” to Russia. That Defence Minister was the same Mr Le Drian who is consumed so completely today by the hypocrisy of the US and Australia. It was only Vladimir Putin’s poor timing in annexing the Crimean Peninsula when he did in 2014 that forced France – and Mr Le Drian – to abandon the sale four months later and repay Russia’s down payment of US$1.2 billion ($1.6 billion). The protestations of the US and its allies were of little consequence to Paris.

Still, selling Mistral-class helicopter carriers is not the same as selling nuclear submarines. Selling nuclear submarines is a different matter. Yet, that is precisely what France sought to do. In 2008, Brazil signed an agreement with Argentina to jointly develop submarine-based nuclear reactors and followed that up in 2010 with an agreement with France’s Naval Group, the same organisation that was to design the Attack-class submarines for Australia. In mid-December 2018, Brazil launched the first of five attack submarines that were built with French technology in a US$8.9 billion ($12.1 billion) programme that was planned to end in 2029 with the delivery of a nuclear-powered submarine. Budget cuts and corruption scandals involving Brazilian contractors have seen the launch date of the last submarines pushed back to 2029. Delays or not, the fact remains that France is quite willing to sell its nuclear submarine technology to any customer irrespective of the effect of those sales on its allies. Thus, the UK’s concerns that selling nuclear submarine technology to Brazil, which would likely side with Argentine should it try again to take the Falklands, are of little concern to France. The level of concern skyrockets, however, when the tables are turned on Paris.

That level of hypocrisy is breathtaking.

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