ANALYSIS: Two weeks after submarine ‘betrayal’ France weighs up whether to extract a price

More than two weeks after the shock scrapping of a submarine contract with Australia, France is in no hurry to mend ties with Canberra as it weighs up whether to extract a cost for its ally's "betrayal".

ANALYSIS: Two weeks after submarine 'betrayal' France weighs up whether to extract a price
One of the Shortfin Barracuda attack submarines Australia had agreed to buy from France's Naval Group. Photo: Naval

France recalled its ambassador to Canberra to protest the September 15 announcement by Australia that it was scrapping the multibillion-dollar submarine contract with France in favour of a new deal negotiated in secret with the US and Britain.

The envoy is still in Paris, with no date set for his return, in a diplomatic snub intended to underline French outrage over the new AUKUS security pact between Canberra, Washington and London.

French leader Emmanuel Macron has also declined requests for a call from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who wants to clear the air.

By contrast, the French ambassador to the United States, who was withdrawn at the same time in protest by Paris, has already returned to Washington and Macron spoke to US President Joe Biden on September 22.

“We need to have a conversation of substance” with Australia, an aide to the French leader said last week on condition of anonymity, adding that the conversation would take place “at an appropriate time.”


The exchange would be organised only once ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault returns to Canberra “with a message from France that will set out a framework for our exchanges with Prime Minister Morrison.”

Morrison, who was a guest of Macron’s in the French capital in June, has acknowledged that he will need to be “patient”, adding: “We understand their disappointment.”

Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan is due in Paris next week, but his French counterpart Frank Riester has declined to meet him, a source close to the French minister said.

‘Stronger protest’

France’s anger stems not only from the loss of the submarine deal — worth Aus$50 billion (31 billion euros, $36.5 billion) in 2016 — but also the shattering of an alliance that it saw as a cornerstone of its Indo-Pacific security strategy.

So far, Paris has reacted differently to each of the three English-speaking countries involved in AUKUS which will see US-designed nuclear submarines replace diesel-powered French ones.

Following their call, Macron and Biden said they would meet in person later this month, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Paris on Monday to build bridges.

France never withdrew its ambassador from London, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Macron spoke last week.

“It’s a stronger protest (against Australia) because in some ways we can allow ourselves to do it,” Bruno Tertrais from the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris-based think-tank, told AFP. “Australia is a friendly country, but we don’t have as deep relations with her as with Britain and the United States. In other words, it’s easier and less costly to freeze official relations with Canberra than it would have been with London or Washington.” 

‘Australian punch’

Beyond diplomatic posturing, one area where France could extract a cost is in talks over a new trade deal between the European Union and Australia.

The European Union is Australia’s third-biggest trading partner and the two sides had hoped to reach a deal before the end of the year.

“I don’t see how we can have confidence in our Australian partner,” French Europe Minister Clement Beaune said in the aftermath of the announcement of AUKUS, raising the prospect of France scuttling any advances.

On Friday, a long-planned round of talks was postponed by a month.    “If there are any retaliatory measures, they will be limited,” said Tertrais who was sceptical that France was alone in pushing for the trade talks to be delayed. “I don’t think France is in a state of mind of wanting to punish Australia.”

He expects that joint military operations, a feature of the once blossoming relations, will resume in due course, as well as contacts between the governments, who share common security concerns about China.

In France, some commentators have reached for rugby metaphors to describe the impact of the loss of submarine — and the recovery time needed by Paris.  

“We got an Australian punch, an American late-tackle and a British eye-gouging,” said Senator Philippe Folliot during a hearing in the upper house this week.

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Explained: Why France is angry with Britain over migrant crossings

The war of words between France and the UK over migrant crossings seems to be getting increasingly ill-tempered. Here's what each side is complaining about.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin shakes with law enforcement officers during a visit to northern France.
French interior minister Gérald Darmanin visits law enforcement officers in northern France. Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP

What is happening?

A total of more than 1,000 migrants crossed the channel from France to England on Friday and Saturday, just the latest in hundreds of crossing staged by migrants and asylum seekers desperate to reach the UK.

Generally undertaken in highly dangerous conditions in small boats, the crossing represents the final stage of the journey for people who have travelled thousands of miles from countries including Afghanistan and Syria to reach the UK, going through Europe and then crossing by sea to the UK.

They usually aim to cross at the shortest point, from the northern French coastline around Calais towards Dover and the south coast of England, just 33km away.

This is a long-standing issue and over the years France and the UK have tried various different joint approaches to tackling the problem.

A total of 15,400 people attempted to cross the Channel in the first eight months of this year, a increase of 50 percent over the figure for the whole of 2020, according to French coast guard statistics.

Why the row?

In short, the UK believes that France is not doing enough to stop the crossings, while France says the UK has broken its promise to finance anti-trafficking measures.

Under an agreement reached in July, Britain agreed to finance border security in France to the tune of €62.7 million.

However according to British media reports, British Home Secretary Priti Patel in September threatened to withhold the money in the light of the record numbers of migrants arriving from France.

France, meanwhile, says that the promised money has not been paid.

Patel’s opposite number, France’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin, said: “The (British) government has not yet paid what it promised us.

“We call on the British to keep their promise of financing since we are maintaining the border for them”.

What is France doing?

Over the past three months France has stopped 65 percent of attempted crossings by illegal immigrants, up from 50 percent, the interior minister said.

The French side has hired more gendarmes, purchased more technological equipment and thereby “succeeded in greatly reducing migratory pressure”, he added.

“France has held the border for our British friends for over 20 years,” said Darmanin. France is “an ally of Britain” but “not its vassal”, he said.

The northern coastline is just one aspect of border policing for France, which also has to deal with migrant crossings on its Mediterranean coast and over land.

READ ALSO: French police cause misery for migrants in Calais

So what next?

On a practical level, Darmanin said that he had received assurances from the director of the European border surveillance agency Frontex, that it will be prepared by the end of the year to monitor the coastal area, notably through aerial surveillance. 

However the row between France and the UK is also about politics and the post-Brexit fallout.

Darmanin on Saturday called for the start of negotiations for a migration treaty between the European Union and Britain.

“We need to negotiate a treaty, since Mr (Michel) Barnier did not do so when he negotiated Brexit, which binds us on migration issues,” the interior minister said, adding that France will champion the project when it takes over the EU’s rotating presidency in January.

Barnier, who is now running for president in France, was the EU’s Brexit negotiator during the fraught talks on a deal to cover relations with the UK after it left the European Union.

READ ALSO: France warns Britain against ‘blackmail’ over migrant crossings