Why the French are so furious at the Biden administration over a derailed submarine deal
The Washington Post September 18, 2021
PARIS ― France recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia for consultations Friday, underscoring simmering French anger over a secretly negotiated submarine technology deal between the United States, Australia and Britain.
In a statement, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the move came "at the request of President Macron" and reflects "the exceptional seriousness." Le Drian had earlier compared the U.S. decision to something "Mr. Trump would do."
The Biden administration's move to share sensitive nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia, which was first announced Wednesday, effectively canceled an earlier agreement between Australia and France. Under that previous deal, Australia would have purchased 12 French diesel-powered submarines.
The French diplomatic response has been unusual in its public bluntness. In an interview, France's ambassador to Australia accused his host country of having engaged in "lies and treason" for 18 months. A Friday night gala that was supposed to commemorate France's naval assistance to American forces during the Revolutionary War was abruptly canceled.
Q: Why are the French so angry?
A: There are a number of reasons. For one, the deal was of virtually unrivaled economic significance to France's defense sector, said Pierre Morcos, a French visiting fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The deal was crucial for "a whole network of small and medium enterprises" in France that were supposed to benefit from it, he said. The economic significance of the Australia deal has been compared to a landmark 2015 agreement between India and French company Dassault Aviation to supply 36 Rafale fighter jets.
Second, France stands to lose strategically as a result of Australia bowing out of its previous commitment. When the deal was struck, the French government celebrated a "strategic partnership . . . for the next 50 years."
"This overall framework is now jeopardized," Morcos said.
French officials also believed that their deal with Australia was an example of U.S.-French cooperation, because the Australian branch of Lockheed Martin, an American company, was expected to be involved in the project.
A third key reason for the French anger is the way the deal between Australia, Britain and the United States was announced. A French official said Thursday that Paris learned of the decision only through media reports - even though it had been negotiated among the three participants for months.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that France was "aware in advance" of the new agreement, although Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that awareness came only in the past day or two.
"There would have been many, many different ways to soften the blow," said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, adding that "the U.S. handled it very awkwardly."
The fact that the Biden administration did not apparently anticipate the furious French reaction means that "we are heading toward difficult times between Paris, Canberra and Washington," Morcos said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that he had warned Macron of problems with the French contract during a visit to Paris in June. But a French diplomatic official on Friday countered that in their meetings the Australians only asked whether the French submarines were still adequate for the changing threat environment. The official said the Australians did not suggest they were planning to move to a different submarine technology as a result of those discussions, or that they were in talks over a deal with Britain and the United States.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, the recalled French ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, said "such a decision announced without any prior consultation - not just a phone call, but real consultation due to the scope of the consequences - marks a real breach of trust."
Q: Will it have long-term implications?
A: France's unusually blunt reaction to the deal suggests that it could have longer-term implications for President Joe Biden's pledge to reset transatlantic relations after four tumultuous years under President Donald Trump.
Within the European Union, the fallout could play into the hands of those calling for the bloc to boost its defense capabilities and to be less reliant on the United States. Such demands had already gained momentum over the past weeks amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen endorsed calls for a 5,000-person rapid-deployment force and announced two new measures: a forthcoming declaration from the E.U. and NATO, and a summit focused on European defense with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been one of the most persistent proponents of "strategic autonomy" for the bloc.
Macron has so far not commented on the submarine deal in public, but his government has made clear that it considers the crisis to be relevant for the broader European Union and is in talks with other European nations.
It is still unclear how strongly other E.U. nations are willing to back France and whether there is now more momentum for structural changes than in the past. In her speech earlier this week, von der Leyen made a pointed critique of "the lack of political will" that had stalled previous joint defense initiatives. Even though those remarks were unrelated to the U.S.-Australia announcement, they suggest that the path toward more European strategic autonomy is likely to be long.
Q: What are France's ambitions in the Pacific?
A: France may not be commonly seen as a key actor in the Pacific and Indian oceans, but the country has significant interests there and sees itself as the advance team of Europe in the region.
Around 2 million French citizens live across a number of French island territories or departments, which include New Caledonia and Réunion. More than 7,000 French soldiers are stationed in the region.
As a result, France sees itself as "not only a European nation" but also one that is deeply anchored in the Indo-Pacific region, Morcos said.
Its security interests largely align with the United States' and Australia's wariness of an emboldened China, but France also sees itself as a potential stabilizing power. Its strategy has heavily relied on partnerships with countries such as Australia, Singapore and Japan.
The U.S.-Australia deal "will jeopardize or limit the French strategy in the region," Morcos said.
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The Washington Post's Reis Thebault, Karen DeYoung, Michael E. Miller and Lily Kuo contributed to this report.