• Richard Murff

A Fracas Over AUKUS

On France, Australia, nuclear submarines & of course, the US.

To France, signed US, Australia and Great Britain

Sitting on the black leather couch in the salon doré in his gilt office in the Elysée Palace, France’s president Emmanuel Marcon isn’t happy. He’s furious and – quit smirking – is a very French kind of fury: Rooted on the unshakable belief that France is special among nations, fated for glorie. It’s possible that the office décor is part of the disconnect, it invites delusions of grandeur. The only reason the building is still standing is because France surrendered before the Germans had a chance to bomb it. The only reason they got it back was due to his best of “frenemies”: Great Britain and the United States. Neither goes down well.


The current fracas is over the Trilateral Defense Pact between Australia, the UK and the US, called AUKUS. Namely that Australia scrapped the largest arms deal in French history – for 12 Barracuda submarines worth about $66 billion - to the Naval Group (of which the French government is a major stakeholder) – without notifying the government before the joint announcement with the US and UK. Which seems to be the diplomatic equivalent of breaking up with someone by changing your Facebook status.


Graceless, to be sure, but the Australian submarine deal was on the verge of collapse anyway – the barracuda is a nuclear-powered sub, but the Naval Group was constructing diesel-electric version of the class which, because they’d never done it before, resulted in doubling the costs and halving the capabilities. Neither Australian politicians or taxpayer liked the deal, and the French reacted with their traditional shoulder-shrugging and project delays that didn’t so much at fix the problem but ignored it. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called this a “stab in the back” by Australia.


None of which really should concern the United States, but this is earth, so everything is our fault. The US has only once before shared our nuclear submarine propulsion technology, back in 1958, when we helped the UK’s Royal Navy got nuclear. Which means not only is Australia not buying the knock-off Barracudas from Naval Group, but it’s nuclear powered subs will be faster, quieter, stealthier and have a much long range that France’s nuclear powered submarine fleet.


Macron’s grand furie is such that he has recalled France’s ambassadors in both Washington and Canberra but, in a move calculated to belittle Great Britain, not London. France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, called Great Britain a “third wheel” in the deal. Le Drian went on to insist that it isn’t about the contracts and the money, but alliances and betrayal. The Aussies stabbed them in the back buy leaving a partnership; the US wooed them away with by showing off it’s big submarines; Great Britain, who is actually transferring the technology, is a Euro-traitor; and NATO is “brain-dead.” More specifically, The United States is an “unreliable ally.” Sure, after the Trump years and our late spasm in Kabul, it’s hard to argue that last point, but it has nothing to do with AUKUS - that Macron has been saying all of this since he came to power in 2017.


It’s not like France has been a historically reliable ally either. Paris has consistently put its interests before the collective interests of its allies – which said allies find grating, but looking out for number one is expected. Where France sets itself apart in that it tends to put its ego before its own self-interest. Then makes a great show of being genuinely baffled to the point of a grand furie when the rest of the party doesn’t recognize its divine right to be placed first among nations… despite all evidence to the contrary. They switched sides in World War II, but fortunately proved as useless to the NAZIs as they were to the Allies. French General Charles de Gaulle famously sat out the war in London and still somehow got himself elected president of a restored (and ungrateful) France, running as the victorious war hero of the glorious struggle they didn’t fight. The logic was tricky, but there we are.


In 1966, De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO over the issue of any integrated command of its armed forces with NATO allies. De Gaulle’s doctrine was, more or less, to take American protection and money while simultaneously attempting to thwart American attempts to keep Moscow out of Paris – but not so much as to leave them to their own fate. France only returned to full participation in 2009.


Marcon sees a vision of Europe as more than a common market, but a geopolitical power. And the fact remains that France is a big, rich nation that dominates Europe, so it can cause US interests short, medium and long term problems for US Policy. The upcoming US-EU Trade and Technology Council is meeting to hash out issues over 5g technology, digital regulation and Chinese acquisition of sensitive technologies. On foreign policy, the EU requires unanimous vote to pass – given every member a veto. In short, France can’t dictate EU policy, but it can block it. And if Brexit talks are any indication, has no problem doing so.


For all the “cheese eating surrender monkey” business, France has been a valuable partner in counter-terrorism, even if it steered clear of our ill-advised nation-building. As far as the Indo-Pacific goes, it has some 7,000 troops permanently stationed in the region of French Polynesia – which used to be a colony but now has a much more fashionable arrangement akin to US protectorates. It has solid relations with India and conducts naval operations with the nuclear capable submarines it didn’t sell to the Aussies with our navy, among others.


In a multi-poplar world, we can’t go it alone without allies, so it’s in our best interest to ease French egos by helping Europe to stand on its own without us. Russia is entering its death throes, and they will lash out. We don’t want to fight that war too.