PARIS — Apoplectic. Blindsided. Jilted.
Paris was a swirl of enraged adjectives Thursday, after Australia, the U.S. and the U.K announced they were coming together in a trilateral strategic partnership that stole away a multibillion-euro submarine contract Paris had signed with Canberra. The move prompted France to issue harsh statements in response and cancel events with both American and Australian allies.
Rarely have French officials been so acerbic in their statements, toward an ally or a foe. For them, the U.S. under President Joe Biden is still Trumpian, Australia is disloyal and untrustworthy, and the U.K. so scorned as to not even be worth mentioning.
“This unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision is a lot like what Mr. Trump did,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on national television Thursday morning. “We learned brutally through a statement by President Biden that the contract that the Australians signed with France is over and the U.S. will make a nuclear [submarines] offer to the Australians.”
The only difference for Paris is that the American disregard for allies is now expressed through press conferences rather than tweets.
Australia was forced on the defensive after Le Drian described its decision to walk away from the deal as a “stab in the back.”
“This difficult decision was taken only in response to a rapid evolution of the strategic environment with which Australia is confronted,” a communiqué published by the Australian embassy in France said. “France remains a first-rate strategic partner for Australia.
Yet Australia’s tossing aside of France was a loud signal that, despite the Trump years and the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, the American security guarantee still reigns supreme.
Worse than the disregard for elementary diplomatic protocol among close allies, or the loss of a deal so massive it was dubbed the “contract of the century,” the Australian-American-British alliance is a cruel reminder to France that partners and allies still do not perceive it as a credible partner with whom they can build an alternative to the U.S.
It is also a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron’s Indo-Pacific strategy and for his push for European strategic autonomy, despite having one of the most capable militaries in the world.
This all puts a squeeze on Macron seven months ahead of the French presidential election in which he is expected to seek a second mandate. The loss of the contract raises big questions about French shipbuilder the Naval Group’s financial situation, and possible layoffs. And it gives fodder to those in opposition who want even closer ties with Russia and greater distance from the transatlantic alliance.
Multiple French officials with direct knowledge of the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, say Australia informed France it was ending the contract to buy 12 conventional submarines mere hours before Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a joint press conference to announce the new trilateral partnership.
The U.S. made no attempt to hold substantive consultations ahead of time to allow Macron to save face. French officials learned of the impending announcement from a POLITICO article.
Meanwhile, Biden’s one-line of praise for France during his announcement was perceived in Paris more as a patronizing slight than as a mark of appreciation.
“France, in particular, already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening
the security and prosperity of the region,” Biden said. “The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we go forward.”
On Thursday evening, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Press Secretary Jen Psaki separately asserted the U.S. was in touch with French officials ahead of the announcement.
Anger at the US
Even though it was Australia that canceled the massive contract, the bulk of French ire was squarely directed at the U.S.
“The American choice to push aside a European ally and partner like France … shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” according to a joint statement from Defense Minister Florence Parly and Le Drian that was France’s first official response to the announcement.
Nevertheless, French officials admit that the core tenets of the Franco-American relationship will remain unchanged given the importance of the issues on which they cooperate. An hour after the new trilateral partnership was announced, France, through Macron’s Twitter account, announced it had killed the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara — an area where the French get vital assistance from U.S. military intelligence.
In a sign of how lopsided the power balance is between the historic allies, the French embassy in Washington canceled in protest a reception it was hosting on Friday to mark the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Chesapeake, which commemorates a French naval victory over a British fleet during the American Revolution.
In private, the French derided the U.K. as an interloper in the new trilateral partnership, desperately trying to show it had global diplomatic sway post Brexit.
On Thursday evening, Macron hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Elysée Palace. Neither mentioned the new Australian-U.S.-U.K. partnership in their statements to the press. Instead, they both mentioned the Indo-Pacific region in general terms as part of a long list of issues they would discuss during their one-on-one and working dinner.
In June, Morrison visited Macron in Paris and the French president affirmed he was personally following the submarine deal. Just two weeks ago, French and Australian foreign and defense ministers held their first-ever ministerial consultations, and the Australian side never brought up their desire to exit the deal, according to the aforementioned officials.
“Both sides committed to deepen defense industry cooperation and enhance their capability edge in the region. Ministers underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program,” the ministers said in the joint statement on August 30.
On Thursday, French officials held calls with their counterparts about the turn of events in which they were incandescent with rage.
Australian, French and Indian foreign ministers were scheduled to hold a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly next week in New York. That meeting was canceled as a direct response to Australia’s decision. Advisers had still been preparing the meeting on Wednesday.
Officials foresee relations with Australia will cool in the immediate future and intend to seek proper compensation.
“We will look into the contractual clauses very carefully,” Parly said Thursday. “We will protect our interest and we will defend them.”