Submarines and spite, France under check-

Submarines and spite, France under check-
Submarines and spite, France under check-
from Stefano Montefiori

For Paris, the supply of 12 submarines to Australia was the “contract of the century.” Here’s how real politik changed alliances (and gains) in the Pacific

To understand the anger of France against the United States and Australia, the withdrawal of ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, the accusations of “stab in the back” and the offense against Biden – “he behaves like Trump” -, we must go back to December 20, 2016 and to the evident satisfaction of Jean-Yves Le Drian, then Minister of Defense of President François Hollande.

The Breton Le Drian, a seventy-year-old long-time socialist, that day captures perhaps the greatest success of his career: in Adelaide, Australia, he signs the “contract of the century” with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for the supply of 12 Shortfin Barracuda attack submarines to the Australian Navy, later called Attack, monsters 100 meters long called to keep Chinese forces at bay, increasingly enterprising in the Pacific.

By beating the German and Japanese competition, France secures a contract worth 34 billion euros (it will become 56 over time), the creation of 4000 jobs in the Cherbourg shipyards but above all it forms a historic alliance with Australia, reaffirmed with a second agreement in 2019: the two countries agree to bond for fifty years and work together in the – crucial – Indo-Pacific area.

“Indo-Pacific” is a term, now in fashion, coined by Japan in 2007 but used by French President Emmanuel Macron only in 2018, the first in Europe. This is the area that, from a French point of view, extends from Djibouti and the Mayotte and Reunion islands in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar, to New Caledonia and French Polynesia, in the Pacific Ocean. Almost two million French citizens live in these territories scattered in the oceans, which with 11 million square kilometers of sea give France the second largest exclusive economic zone in the world (after that of the United States). More importantly, the Indo-Pacific area is the playground of the game for world domination, in which China, the United States and their allies participate. For France, being strong in this area means defending its fellow citizens, no doubt, but also giving itself a global projection and breath, not restricted to Europe..

Since the beginning, therefore, since the end of 2016, the submarine contract is a matter of military supplies and contracts but also of international politics: after the sale of the Rafale fighters to India in 2015, the Barracuda submarines to Australia seem to complete the circle and ensure France a leading position.

Minister Le Drian spends Christmas 2016 happily, but the first concrete problems soon arrive. The agreement is very complex because it involves a transfer of technologies and partial assembly in the Australian yards of Adelaide. Then, the company Naval Group (of which the French state is the largest shareholder) is called to modify the Barracuda submarines: originally driven by a nuclear reactor, in the Australian version they must have diesel propulsion because this is what the Canberra authorities require. It is a way to have more freedom of movement, because neighboring New Zealand does not allow nuclear submarines to enter its territorial waters, but this change extends the time and costs. Orders of this importance often experience delays and accidents along the way, but political innovations are added to industrial difficulties.

China is becoming more enterprising and threatening, the conventional propulsion initially requested by Australia itself turns out to be insufficient, the military advantages of the nuclear reactor – longer immersions and therefore greater range – become decisive.

The French understand this and several times, according to what is now being said in Paris, they probe Canberra, but they do not get an answer because, once again, the matter is not just military-technical.

America is back, says President Biden: maybe not in Afghanistan, but certainly in the Indo-Pacific area at the heart of world competition. After Obama’s hesitation and Trump’s isolationist temptations, Biden’s America is offering Australia nuclear-powered submarines – breaking a taboo because so far no nuclear nation had sold them to a non-nuclear nation – adding Tomahawk missiles and above all a global alliance. The Aukus pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, studied for 18 months and announced three days ago, establishes the agreement between three great Anglo-Saxon countries, and relegates France to the role of supporting actor in the region. And to think that last August 30, at the inter-ministerial meeting with France, Australia still pretended nothing had happened.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, now foreign minister, is furious. He says that “these things are not done between allies,” and perhaps he is not completely wrong.

September 18, 2021 (change September 18, 2021 | 22:15)


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