Fallout from the Aukus defence agreement, signed between the US, UK and Australia, continues in France. The deal, in which Australia backed out of a 2016 deal to buy 12 diesel-powered submarines from France in favour of building nuclear-powered submarines using American technology, has been dubbed a “stab in the back” by Paris. After recalling its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington last week, Emmanuel Macron’s government has sought to derail EU trade talks with Australia in retaliation.
Beyond the commercial loss of a contract worth AUD90bn to France’s critical defence industry, the pact also raises questions about Paris’s pretensions as an Indo-Pacific power. France’s legacy of empire, uniquely among European countries, includes several territories in the region, such as Réunion and French Polynesia, that are home to some 1.6 million French citizens and encompass an Exclusive Economic Zone of some 9 million square kilometres.
In the face of China’s expansionist ambitions, France has attempted to reassert its military might in the Indo-Pacific. Some 7,000 troops are deployed in the region. In 2020, for the first time in two decades, France sent a nuclear submarine to the Indo-Pacific as a means of signalling that it was willing and able to protect its interests there.
That strategy has been dealt a severe blow by the Aukus deal, which is widely viewed as Canberra giving Washington its vote of confidence over Paris as the ultimate anti-China power in the Indo-Pacific. Despite conciliatory noises from the three signatories, Paris’s anger has not subsided. France has accused the US and Australia of keeping it in the dark over negotiations for the new treaty and in the process marginalising a historic ally.
That Australia – whose relations with China have drastically worsen since 2016, when the deal with France was signed – should seek to align with the US rather than France is perhaps unsurprising. While the US, under both President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump, has taken a strongly confrontational stance towards China, Macron’s government has in recent months emphasised that it cannot be expected to automatically align with Washington against Beijing.
As I wrote at the time of this summer’s G7 summit – an event at which the new pact was reportedly agreed – Macron has argued that Europe must be permitted “independence [from the US] when it comes to our strategy with regard to China”. That stance, which implies a willingness to take a less confrontational position than the US’s, runs the risk of alienating allies less open to accommodating Beijing.
Yet in recent days, France has doubled down on its position. In a press conference, the foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned the US’s “very confrontational orientation” towards China, arguing that Europe should follow an “alternative model… of muscular competition” instead.
Although an Elysée read-out of a 21 September call between Macron and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, asserted both countries’ “willingness to act within a free and open Indo-Pacific”, France has had limited success rallying allies closer to home behind it.
Despite Paris framing the dispute as an EU-wide problem, support from other European countries has been relatively muted. The German and Italian governments were almost completely silent in the days after the announcement of the new pact. Some EU member states have been more vocally opposed. Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, even expressed frustration with France’s position on Aukus, saying she “can’t understand” Paris’s position.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said on 20 Septembre that the EU had been “caught by surprise by this announcement”. Retaliation from Brussels has so far been limited: the EU has delayed a planned trade and technology council between EU and US representatives, billed as a major advance in relations between the two blocs. (By the time the EU presented a common response, the German government had offered support to France.)
Some EU countries do not feel overly concerned with the dispute, which they see primarily as a loss for France’s national interests rather than their own. A threat by France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, to derail planned EU-Australia trade talks is viewed dimly in member states, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, who stand to benefit from a deal.
That points to a bigger problem for France, which is seeking to salvage support for its agenda of European strategic autonomy from the debris of the failed submarine deal as it prepares for its presidency of the Council of the European Union, which will begin on 1 January 2022.
However much Macron would prefer it to be otherwise, European countries still overwhelmingly decide policy based on their own national interests rather than solidarity between member states or out of a sense of Europeanness. And that is as true for France as for any one of its neighbours. Paris’s vision of the EU – as a geopolitical actor in its own right, which could go as far as torpedoing a valuable trade deal over a snub to a member state – is about making the bloc work in France’s interests.