When Antony Blinken came to Paris on June 25, French leaders told the US secretary of state that France attached the “utmost importance” to its strategic submarine deal with Australia — a deal now sunk by the new Aukus pact, according to senior French officials.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, also stressed that he viewed the agreement with Australia as a “French-US partnership” because of the significant role played by American defence company Lockheed Martin in the French contract, one French diplomat said. President Emmanuel Macron repeated the messages, according to the French side.
This was just one of several overtures made by the French to US and Australian officials in the months before the Aukus deal was secretly finalised between the US, Australia and the UK, and the A$50bn submarine contract between France and Australia was undone.
Macron was so insulted by being left out of the Aukus Indo-Pacific pact, which is designed to confront growing Chinese power in the region, and by the lack of warning from his allies, that he recalled his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra on Friday night.
“Why is France so upset?” wrote Benjamin Haddad, senior director for Europe at the Atlantic Council. “Those pointing to the commercial deal are missing the point. The view in Paris is the US shaped an alliance in secret with two partners, undercutting France’s entire Indo-Pacific strategy in the last decade. Why France was not brought in is inexplicable.”
Peter Ricketts, former UK ambassador to France, said the French felt “not just anger but a real sense of betrayal that UK as well as US and Aus[tralia] negotiated behind their backs for six months”.
He said he had lived through the French-US rupture over Iraq in 2003, when France under Jacques Chirac opposed George W Bush’s invasion, and “this feels as bad or worse”.
As French rage erupted in recent days, senior US officials have tried to limit the damage to their relationship with Paris.
Ned Price, the spokesperson for the state department, said the US hoped to hold high-level talks with France at the UN General Assembly meetings next week, “in line with our close bilateral partnership and commitment to co-operation on a range of issues, including the Indo-Pacific”.
But the wounds are so raw that they may not heal quickly, and French frustration that it was stonewalled remains. “We never heard about what was going on . . . These discussions have been going on apparently for months,” a French official said.
From as far back as June, French officials also asked their Australian counterparts multiple times whether they wanted to change the contract from conventional to nuclear-powered submarines, which France also makes, because they suspected that Canberra was reconsidering. These questions were met with silence, according to the French officials.
One official rejected any notion that France had not been properly implementing the submarine deal with Australia as “wrong, wrong, wrong” — saying these were poor excuses.
“There’s a French proverb saying: ‘If you want to kill your dog, you say he has rabies’,” they said.
Franco-American relations are now at their lowest ebb since Barack Obama made a U-turn on planned strikes against the Syrian regime in 2013, abandoning French forces that were poised to begin the operation.
Macron has spent years trying to promote France, joined by its EU partners, as an Indo-Pacific power. The jewel of these efforts was the contract with French weapons suppliers negotiated as part of a Franco-Australian strategic partnership.
The contract, finally signed in 2019 and described at the time as a “50-year wedding” between the two nations, is already under way, with French engineers seconded to Australia to carry out much of the work locally.
“We’ve moved many Europeans a long way down the Indo-Pacific road,” said the French diplomat, pointing to the bloc’s landmark strategy proposal for the region, released on Thursday.
“Three years ago, it was absolutely impossible to get any agreements from the 27 that would contain the words ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ because of the anti-China thing.”
One person in France familiar with the deal said it was normal for the US, like other big powers, to use its strategic might — and the promise of support in time of war — to snatch arms contracts from rivals such as France while they were being negotiated.
“It’s a rule of the game. No one is shocked by that,” the person said. But to force the cancellation of a contract already being implemented to win business was another matter. “That’s not common.”
The French were particularly angry because Biden had spent eight months talking about the importance of shoring up alliances with Europe to counter China and repairing the damage done by Donald Trump.
But some US officials say the onus was on Canberra to inform the French of any changes to their contract.
The state department’s account of Macron’s June meeting with Blinken did not mention any discussion of the Indo-Pacific alliance. At a joint news conference on that day, Le Drian called for “being stronger” in the Indo-Pacific, but Blinken did not refer to the issue. The main topics during Blinken’s visit were Russia, China, the Sahel and Lebanon.
“The security initiative [Ausuk] is a major step forward for Biden’s Asia policy, but it also turbocharges a narrative in the EU that they are being taken for granted,” said Thomas Wright, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution.
“Declarations of support for the alliance will no longer be enough. The US and Europe need to be more strategically frank with each other about where their interests align and diverge even if it is awkward.”
Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and CEO of CogitoPraxis, a leadership consultancy, called the affair “a tragedy of errors” on all sides.
“The French had abundant signals that the Australians were unhappy. The Australians blindsided the French rather than levelling with them. The Americans fell prey to their China obsession and entirely failed to think in worldwide terms,” he said.
Paris has, however, been relatively isolated in its outrage at Aukus, with the rest of the EU’s response being fairly muted, which will limit the pressure on Washington and Canberra.
Haddad said the rift would still have long-term consequences for France’s relations with Nato and its allies, and on arms procurements, while other analysts warned that France might be overreacting in a way that would damage its own interests.
“France has global influence but it cannot project global power,” said Dungan. “France needn’t toady to the US, as it thinks Britain does, but it should create a conviction in Washington that France brings indispensable and irreplaceable tangible benefits to the US, in the Indo-Pacific and across the whole relationship. France’s largely symbolic gestures of outrage don’t, in my opinion, achieve this.”
At the least, the shock of Aukus will bolster the argument made by Macron since his election in 2017 that Europe needs to do more for its own security. As Le Drian and Florence Parly, the French defence minister, said, the new pact only “reinforces the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy”.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington