Is he sincerely grumpy or just pretending? Credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images

September 20, 2021   6 mins

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, is a cautious man, solid, reliable, even a little dull. He is not (unlike some French politicians) prone to empty gestures or over-dramatic statements. On Saturday night, on live television, Mr Le Drian, accused the United States government of lying to France. He also accused Australia of “lies and duplicity”.

Britain, he said, was guilty merely of its “usual opportunism”. Boris Johnson’s government was the “fifth wheel on the cart” in an unfriendly conspiracy against France by the two other English-speaking nations.

This is not normal language between allies – certainly not that of an experienced foreign minister speaking to his nation on live TV. There was a “serious crisis” between Paris, Washington and Canberra, Le Drian said, “a serious breach of trust”.

Three days into the great US-Australian-French Submarine Row, Le Drian made no attempt to lower periscope and dive into calmer waters. He exploded a series of diplomatic depth charges. He warned of further “consequences”, perhaps related to the fact that French officials say that they have documents which prove that President Joe Biden’s government lied to America’s oldest ally, France.

The fallout was caused by the Pacific security pact announced last week — AUKUS — which included a vague plan to build up to eight US-designed nuclear-powered submarines for Australia by an unspecified date. At the same time as detailing this, Canberra announced that it was cancelling a five-years old, Euros 60bn French contract to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines to the Australian navy by 2030.

This was the same 2016 deal that Australian and French ministers met to discuss last month. Although problems were discussed — cost-overruns, delays, design changes — a joint statement was agreed which restated the “importance of the (2016) contract”.

French officials now say they believe that the Australia-US-UK discussions have been going on for at least six months. And they suspect that they may have begun 18 months ago, under the Trump administration, and were then pursued by the Biden White House – which denied their existence in correspondence with France.

Hence the accusations of “lies and duplicity”. And hence France’s highly unusual step of withdrawing ambassadors from its allies Australia and the United States. And, in possibly the first example of a country being snubbed by a decision by another country not to recall its ambassador, Mr Le Drian said that the Johnson government had played only a small, “opportunistic” role in the affair.

Some British commentators have been delighted by France’s anger. This is all, they suggest, the “usual” French sulking and pique. Paris was excluded from the AUKUS partnership and from the new submarine deal, they say, because France is an “unreliable” ally and the French naval-building company, Naval Group, had messed up its “deal of the century” with Australia.

Other senior diplomats and former diplomats say that this is a gross misreading of what may come to be seen as the most serious diplomatic crisis within the western alliance since the second Iraq war in 2003 or the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Further reading
What's behind Macron's fury?

By Aris Roussinos

Lord Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to Paris and Nato and a former head of the Foreign Office, said: “France sees it as a betrayal by the British and the US, who did this secretly with Australia for the last six months. French diplomats have told me that America lied about what they were doing and they will be releasing documents to show that America lied. They are asking themselves, ‘What is the point of being a Nato ally if this is how the US behaves?’”

Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, wrote yesterday: “[The United States] deliberately trampled the important interests of an ally…They might have invited France to join the project or offered some form of compensation. They couldn’t be bothered.”

The great winner in the saga, to date, is China — the intended “target” of the AUKUS pact and the reason why Australia sought upgraded submarine defences, which will now be delayed until the 2040s. Beijing must be looking on in delighted bemusement.

France is by no means free from blame. The Barracuda submarine programme, agreed under President Francois Hollande, has been subject to cost hikes and delays – some, but not all, caused by Australian second-thoughts and the promise that much of the work would be exported to Adelaide.

The suggestion in French media is that President Macron and his government took their eye off the ball: they didn’t monitor the submarine programme properly and failed to pick up on the secret talks with the USA. Where was French diplomacy? Where was the French external intelligence service?

The promised submarines were a nuclear-powered French design, reconfigured for diesel engines at Australia’s request. When France suspected that Canberra had changed its mind, it offered nuclear subs but the Australian government refused (while secretly asking for nuclear subs from the US).

In Australia, though, the decision by Scott Morrison’s government to throw over the French contract has not been universally well-received. Canberra has been shilly-shallying about better submarines for the Australian navy since 2009. First a Japanese order was cancelled; now a French one. So the Australian tax-payer will once again be landed with billions of dollars for cancellation payments. There is no firm plan for the new US nuclear subs, just a “plan to have a plan” as the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out. Less work and less technology will probably be exported to Australia than under the French deal.

“Australia can now contemplate another decade or two with no new subs,” wrote Peter Hartcher, political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. “And even if this proposal goes to plan, Australia will not have a full sovereign capability but an increased defence dependency on the US.”

There is an important part of this story which is often missing from British commentary. France is Australia’s neighbour. It is a Pacific nation — even a Pacific power. It is also an Indian Ocean nation.

Australia’s nearest neighbour to the east is New Caledonia, a French overseas territory, which is constitutionally part of France, not a French colony. Going west for a few thousand miles, Australia’s long-distance Indian Ocean neighbour is the island of Réunion, a French overseas département. The torpedoed submarine deal was the cornerstone of a new Pacific and Indian Ocean security partnership between France and Australia — re-asserted this year when Prime Minister Morrisson visited President Emmanuel Macron in the Elysée Palace.  That deal is now also, in effect, dead.

The French had hopes of playing an allied but independent-minded role in the Indo-Pacific region, alongside Australia, the United States and Japan. Macron especially wanted to strengthen France’s role there because he feared that Washington — whichever President might be in power — would stumble into a confrontational approach to China. He wanted Europe to have its own calming voice in western-Chinese relations.

Some commentators in France are suggesting that AUKUS is just a vulgar arms deal dressed up as a security pact. Washington, they say, was under pressure from the US military-industrial lobby to steal the French deal when evidence emerged that it was struggling (as all such big deals do). Senior French sources say that, au contraire, the principal attraction for Washington was to destroy the Franco-Oz pact and putting the French in their place. European and other countries are officially encouraged by the US to join in the policing of the Pacific or the South China Sea – but as junior partners not as thinking heads.

The former Washington ambassador, Gérard Araud, says: “The United States have identified a single enemy, China and all foreign policy is subordinated to that imperative…They can only conceive of coalitions as under their direction and will only work with countries which accept a secondary role, such as the UK and Australia.”

Other sources suggest that the reality is more muddled. Neither the Trump nor the Biden administrations took the trouble to understand French interests in the Indo-Pacific. Insofar as they did, they were neutral or unsympathetic. American commercial and geo-political interests came first.

The secrecy of the talks — the failure to involve France in some way — does suggest that the US approach was a deliberate hit on Paris and Macron. Hence the extreme fury in the Elysée Palace.

Could Macron be deliberately over-reacting for domestic political reasons? Not exactly. His fury is, I am told, sincere. But Macron also knows that a high-profile assertion of French independence from Washington will do him no harm in the presidential election in April. The alternative — protesting in a more conventional way and playing down the affair — might have been very damaging.

In truth, Macron is in an odd position, both humiliated by what he sees as US treachery and vindicated by it. The French President has been saying for almost four years that Nato is “brain dead” and that Europe should no longer rely on the Atlantic alliance with the United States to defend, or even consider, European interests.

Le Drian said on Saturday that France would now make that point even more forcefully at the Nato summit in Madrid next year. Lord Ricketts predicts that the Pacific submarine saga will cause a “huge rift” within the Atlantic alliance.

As things stand — or as they stood — there are few takers for Macron’s vision of a European Union which plays a much bigger role in defending its own security and prosperity in association with Nato. Few other EU countries want to face the consequences of losing the American guarantee against Russia or having to pay more for their own defence.

That will not be transformed overnight but the tectonic plates might shift. European Nato countries were already badly shaken by America’s failure to consult on its withdrawal from Afghanistan. They must now consider the implications of the AUKUS affair — Washington mendaciously crushing the interests of an ally.

Nato in its present form survived Donald Trump. Can it survive Joe Biden?

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.