OPINION: France's Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: France's Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison answer the press prior to a working diner at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 15, 2021. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

The Franco-American-Australian submarine war seems to have surfaced from nowhere. To understand what is going on, you have to answer three pub-quiz questions, writes John Lichfield.


First, which country is immediately west of Australia? Second, which country is immediately east of Australia? Thirdly, which country sprawls most widely over the globe?

The answer to all of these questions is the same: France.

The nasty row which has broken out between Paris, Washington, Canberra and (to an extent) London, is about more than a €60bn French contract to build 12 submarines for the Australian navy.

It is about France as a Pacific and Indian ocean nation; it is about France’s desire to play an important role in Indian-Pacific affairs, containing China without antagonising China; it is about America’s willingness to treat allies as allies, not vassals; it is about honesty and openness in international affairs.

President Emmanuel Macron has withdrawn the French ambassadors to Washington and Canberra after the US,  Australia and Britain announced a new security pact, called AUKUS, after 18 months of secret talks. As part of the pact France’s 2016 deal to supply 12 diesel-powered, Barracuda-class submarines to Australia has been replaced by a US-UK promise (not yet a deal) to supply nuclear-powered, but not nuclear armed, subs.


France accuses the three English-speaking nations of a “stab in the back”. But it has not withdrawn its ambassador from London. Some commentators suggest that is because France has so many important interests in common with the UK, Brexit or no Brexit.

Other commentators and French officials suggest that, au contraire, it is because Paris regards the UK involvement in AUKUS as something “opportunistic” and irrelevant.

French officials told Le Monde that NOT withdrawing the French ambassador from London was a way of expressing contempt for Boris Johnson’s role as a “stowaway” in a US-Australian submarine.

But why is France so furious?  Arms deals are a murky business. The bigger they are, the murkier they become. One friendly nation beating another to a huge arms deal is hardly new.

Let's return to our pub quiz question. Australia’s nearest significant neighbour directly to the west is the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. To the east it is the archipelago of New Caledonia. These islands are constitutionally and legally not French colonies: they are as much part of France as Corsica or Calais.

READ ALSO 'Confetti of an empire' - a look at France's overseas territories

The torpedoed submarine deal was commercially important to France but also politically important as the cornerstone of a new Pacific and Indian Ocean security partnership with Australia agreed in 2016 and re-asserted this year. That,  in turn, was crucial to France’s hopes of building an Indo-Pacific strategy which would make it the most important European player in the region.


The commitment to both was restated by Paris and Canberra as recently as June 15th when the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, visited Macron in the Elysée.

 “Every element of our partnership is about reinforcing the values and beliefs that we hold dearly,” Morrison said at the time. He gave Macron no hint that the submarine deal was in trouble. Problems with cost over-runs and design details appeared to have been resolved.

In fact, it now emerges, the US has been involved in talks with Australia and the UK to blow both the French deal and  the Franco-OZ pact out of the water for 18 months. In other words, the secret talks began under President Donald Trump and continued and were completed under President Joe Biden.

“And we thought we were mates,” the departing French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault  said in interview with Australian newspapers today. “This is not what you do a partner and even less to a friend.”

Which was more important to the United States? Stealing the submarine deal? Or destroying French hopes of playing an allied role with the US , Japan and others in Indo-Pacific affairs and coping with an increasingly aggressive and confident China?

Some people suggest that AUKUS is just a vulgar  arms deal dressed up as a security pact. The US and Australia already have a security agreement. Why do they need another one? And what can Britain do to help with a tiny Royal Navy and an Army that can’t fill Wembley stadium?

Others commentators suggest that Washington was too ignorant or too inward-looking to grasp that AUKUS would humiliate and infuriate the French. Australia, they say,  grew unhappy with the conventionally-powered French subs. It secretly approached Washington – even though France had offered to upgrade its own deal to nuclear-powered submarines.


One of the many oddities of this affair is that US arms companies already stood to earn more from the French deal than French ones. Only €8bn of the €60bn was to be spent in France (for the submarine hulls mostly). The rest was to be spent on US armaments and high-tech equipment and Australian labour.

The suspicion in the Elysée Palace is that AUKUS is a deliberate and well-planned hit on French ambitions in the Pacific (which precede Macron but have been emphasised since he came to power) Hence the extreme, though symbolic, measure taken by Macron to withdraw ambassadors from allied countries (and the first time ever from the US).

Macron finds himself in a strange place – both vindicated by what has happened and humiliated by it. He has been saying for almost four years that Nato is “brain dead” and Europe can no longer rely on the United States to defend, or even consider, European interests.

He wanted to strengthen  France’s role in the Pacific partly because he feared that Washington – whichever President might be in power – would stumble into a confrontational approach to China. He wanted Europe to have its own voice in western-Chinese relations.

Arguably, he over-reached himself. The US has now, in effect, slapped him down.

There is nothing much he can do about it. Germany is preoccupied by its election. Most other European countries are reluctant to face the consequences of quarrelling with Uncle Sam. None of them have islands in the Pacific or Indian Oceans.

All the same, the AUKUS affair, coming so soon after the debacle of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan,  proves that Macron is right. Nato is brain dead. Washington doesn’t have allies, only junior partners.  Britain has willingly accepted that role. It is time that for the European Union to consider how (to coin a phrase) it can take back control of its own security and prosperity.


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hupkensconsult 2021/09/22 19:54
I agree with Boggy. Good article, by the way, from John Lichfield. He got in more facts than the big international papers had done up to that time. The New York Times has not mentioned once that France builds nuclear submarines and that they had to re-engineer the designs to make what the Australians wanted, namely diesel-electric ones. They seem to suggest that the States are the only country in the world that can build nuclear powered ones. A great pity and a waste of energy. As if there are no other urgent problems to tackle.
ringtheory 2021/09/21 15:47
Yes, the US has screwed up the Middle East in support of Israel and its ethnic cleansing project. But if China achieves global leadership it will be another dark age of vassalage. France has demonstrated that it is soft on China, and a real ally would join with the US and its other allies, rather than this childish temper tantrum over euros.
ringtheory 2021/09/21 15:44
Would you have counseled the French, in 1940, to learn German, and start working more efficiently like Germans, rather than fight for their freedom? Should they have thought about their freedom or how many Luis Vuittons bags they are selling to the Germans? Obviously, I am being sarcastic, because what you are suggesting is so out of touch with what is going on. Australia thought like you 5 years ago, now they realize they are in serious danger from the largest navy in the world. China is the most evil country in the world now - they are harvesting the organs of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, they have millions of muslims in concentration camps and force-sterealizing women, etc.
execdrive 2021/09/21 13:39
Certainly not this blog for starters.
hibernian51 2021/09/21 13:24
Define “real news outlets.”
execdrive 2021/09/21 10:51
Yes. It would make a change from them trying to speak English and more productive.
execdrive 2021/09/21 10:50
Are you a fool or just trying to be clever. Read some real news outlets and talk to people that actually knew what happened.
hibernian51 2021/09/21 10:13
Evidence, please?
execdrive 2021/09/21 08:40
No it's just about America sticking it's nose into other country's business and trying to be the world's peacekeepers but failing at the job. America has caused more division in the Middle East then any other all for the sake of oil. Why do you think they went after Saddam Hussein and invented stories about WMDs. It certainly wasn't because of the way he dressed, it was because he threaten to sell the oil in euros not dollars and cut America out of the loop.
execdrive 2021/09/21 08:27
I find all this saga about subs extremely amusing. Let's face it, the first country to fire a nuclear missile at another country will mean curtains for everyone. So all this schoolyard boasting about who has the largest fleet is just pathetic. Perhaps people should realise that all this money spent on arms could be better spent on things like free ice-cream for all.
ammonia6 2021/09/20 22:18
NATO Atlantic AUKUs Pacific
ringtheory 2021/09/20 21:04
So you’re saying the Australians should just start learning to speak Chinese and overpay for workers who take month long vacations while the Aussies continue to be threatened with nuclear attack?
sevys 2021/09/20 20:24
Hello, no need for insults! I’ve carried out military / security analysis for UK, French and US Governments for 30 years. I call things as I see it. The UK has nothing to be proud of either with its colonial past, but France like the UK has face the truth about its extensive colonial past. Has for Brexit, I advised against it, as this just strengthened Russia’s hand when dealing with the EU and diminished both the EU and the UK. I voted to remain and what more relocated to France to a)remain part of the EU dream and b)to a country I love, but that does not blind me European countries running colonies from an imperial past, UK with Indian ocean islands, France with Pacific islands. Neither country should be there.
ericmariner 2021/09/20 20:21
Why do some people have to reduce every topic to Brexit, its pathetic quite frankly!
ericmariner 2021/09/20 20:19
Your post shows a poor grasp of the facts. The Aussies are buying 12 boats and the very fact that the Pacific is so big makes them even harder to find than they already would be, that's the whole point of going nuclear rather than diesel. Your post further up is also wrong about the costs. The French were overcharging in the first place, and specifications change all the time. Very few defence contracts are ever delivered as per the original contract, that's the very nature of the beast, which is why different ships of the same class will very seldom be identical. Chinese nuclear submarine and missile technology is way behind at the moment, but is catching up and China must definitely has expansionist ambitions. Are you going to call me a Brexiter now?!
hibernian51 2021/09/20 20:14
NATO is not the same alliance it was when it was created and the nations that constitute it are not the same. When De Gaulle was in power, France spent 5% of GDP on defense. It's now down to 1.3%. European military capability has atrophied at an alarming rate. For the U.S. there is no there there anymore in its European allies. Moreover, Europe has said it will remain neutral between the U.S. and China. That's their choice. But the Australians who have an increasingly belligerent China in their face every day have no need for "neutral" allies. What would Australia do with French submarines if the Chinese threatened to terminate major business deals with France unless France refused to supply spare parts for those ships? This is all just part of the U.S. re-focusing it's priorities on containing China. Europe has chosen to sit this one out and shelter under the U.S. security shield while taking every opportunity to cut business deals with the Chinese based on narrow self-interest. It's an old pattern that has contributed much to the weakening of NATO.
mwfolwell 2021/09/20 20:05
Good synopsis Eric, Thanks Mark - RN (Retd)
bontouxv 2021/09/20 19:07
I think your historic perspective does not run deep enough. What about the Silk Road and Alexander the Great? After all, you are talking about Indochina, as if 2021 France cared about these territories that have never really been "colonised". Keep your colonial nostalgia for your little Brexiter mind - we are not in a UKIP rally. BTW, Réunion, Polynesia and the like are not "colonies", but French départements or territories, like Dordogne (to quote a foreign territory you might know about) or Corsica. And FYI the extra costs incurred by the French sub deal was due to the fact that the Australians themselves were changing their requirements all the time. Mind you, now that we know that this little back stabbing had been in the oven for 18 months, what a better strategy to justify reneging on your commitment than making costs go up, than saying that it's the provider's fault? Well done...
bontouxv 2021/09/20 18:59
The subs won't be operational before 2045... God knows what the geopolitical, economic, environmental situation in this region of the world will look like by then... Plus, plenty of time for X American presidents to stab their Aussie allies/vassals in the back, because, you know, "America first". And really, do you think that 5 or 6 submarines will make a difference in such a huge space in the middle of two formidable navies like China's and the States' ?
sevys 2021/09/20 18:00
France is not trusted as a reliable ally. France just wanted a prop for the remains of a colonial empire in South East Asia that once comprised of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam plus multiple Pacific islands. France could not stop China from breaking up Indochina in the 1950’s and 1960’s with a policy of appeasement politics and military forces. France & USA alliance fell apart during Vietnam, plus France leaving NATO Military command, then rejoining and now again threatening to leave does not endear France to the USA as a fully trusted ally. France would not be able to stop China from seizing more colonial possessions now, even with a French-Australia alliance. Containment of China, needs Australia, USA, Japan, South Korea. India will want to stay neutral. The EU nations that are in NATO have for years underspent on their own defence, so I can’t see any enthusiasm for the EU as a whole to become involved so far from home. France like the rest of the EU (and the UK) need to rethink about needs to be fought for, what would nice to protect with assistance from allies and what should be let go as no direct stategic importance. The submarine deal itself was bust as soon as France missed key delivery targets for submarines to Australia and also overran on costs by almost 100%
ericmariner 2021/09/20 17:43
The Aussies aren't buying any nuclear missiles!
ericmariner 2021/09/20 17:41
Few points of order here: 1. I suggest that Mr Lichfield goes back to school and retakes Geography. If you go West from Australia the first country you reach is Mauritius which is an independent member of the Commonwealth. Reunion is further West towards Madagascar. 2. Its been an open secret in defence circles for some time that the French submarine deal was in trouble, this hasn't happened suddenly. The French were grossly overcharging for conventional diesel powered submarines which have less range and are noisier and thus easier to detect. 3. The deal with the UK and US for nuclear POWERED (not nuclear armed) submarines makes perfect sense and allows Australia to really have a system that the Chinese will be very wary of and play a role in countering China in the Pacific together with Japan and the US etc. 4. These submarines will only be armed with torpedoes and conventional cruise missiles, Australia as no intention of becoming a nuclear armed country. 5. The Australians have not been impressed with what they received from previous big arms deals with France, notably Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopters, which have been a disaster and are shortly to be replaced with the American made Apache. 6. UK involvement will be in the provision of the latest anechoic tile technology, which is what makes UK submarines the quietest in existence today. Before anyone asks - I'm an ex-Royal Navy officer.
execdrive 2021/09/20 08:04
I find all these comments very amusing. It's about time people woke up to the fact that it irrelevant whether a sub is powered nuclear, diesel or clockwork. The first time a nuclear missile is launched at another country, it's game over for everyone.
careyjg 2021/09/19 19:40
Lichfield is still stuck in ‘Remoaner’ mode whilst the world passes the EU by. Australia saw the US as actual counter threat to China rather than a rudderless talking shop made up of 27 disparate ‘member states.
arvran 2021/09/19 18:19
You nailed it !
ringtheory 2021/09/19 12:34
This opinion writer seems to be completely unaware what is happening in the world. China has completely wrecked Australia's economy after Morrison asked for an inquiry into Covid, and has threatened to nuke Australia more than once. Chinese ships are ramming and sinking ships from around the South China Sea, and China is flying squadrons of military planes into Taiwan's airspace almost daily. Would the Australian's put their very survival in the hands of 2nd rate submarines? When war breaks out, are the French going to rescue Australia? Its only the US that has the guts to stand up to China rather than appease it. Australian troops fought beside US troops in Vietnam after the French left (after they were unsuccessful in getting the US to nuke North Vietnam). Instead of this childish display, the French should remember that the US and UK have fought alongside them for over 100 years. Its getting very ugly very quick and they should pick a side : China or the Quad (US Australia Japan, India). Seen in that way, its obvious that the French are the ones damaging their alliances, over lost money from the Australian government and Chinese tourists and purchasers of LV bags.
careyjg 2021/09/19 11:34
Dress it up how you like, but Macron has got egg all over his face. It’s about time this arrogant little twerp was brought down a peg or two.
albiefraser 2021/09/19 08:41
70 years ago General Dwight Eisenhower predicted that if NATO was still in existence in 10 years time , it would have flopped in it's purpose, and he was the man who started NATO.
peter_303884 2021/09/19 08:36
The Evil Empire strikes again. Time for Europe to wake up!
stuart.laing 2021/09/18 22:16
It's certainly time the EU took responsibility for the defence of Europe. They'll have to spend a lot more than they do now on defence but they could always spend it with the French and then everyone's happy. As for the Alliance down under, it was always a non-starter that the Australians would want the French since France is also EU and that means at least two foreign policies at any one time. The Macron/Merkel visit to China and the EU/China Investment Agreement is the sort of thing that would make French participation in Australia's most essential military partnership utterly impossible.

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