ANALYSIS: Is Macron going too far in his fury over Australian submarine deal?

ANALYSIS: Is Macron going too far in his fury over Australian submarine deal?
Photo: Stefano Rellandini/AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron's fury over the cancellation of a huge submarine contract is part of a bid to show strong leadership in the run-up to 2022 elections, but he needs to tread carefully to avoid tripping up, analysts say.

France’s unprecedented recall of its US and Australian ambassadors over the scuppering of its €31-billion “deal of the century” to supply Australia with 12 submarines caught Washington and Canberra off guard.

Nearly a week after the deal was torpedoed, Macron has not yet publicly commented on Australia’s decision to ditch its French order for American nuclear-powered vessels as part of a new defence pact with the US and UK to counter a rising China.

But while leaving it to Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to complain that France had been “stabbed in the back” by its friends, it was Macron who took the decision to bring home France’s envoys.

The move, usually reserved for adversaries, appeared aimed at sending a message that one of the West’s biggest military powers – which aims to be a moderating influence at a time of US-Chinese tensions in the Indo-Pacific region – deserves more respect.

READ ALSO OPINION Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO

The French spokesman for the Defence Ministry on Tuesday took the unusual step of writing a detailed Twitter thread – in English – on the technical aspects of the submarine deal.

US President Joe Biden attempted to smooth the waters by requesting a telephone call with his French counterpart.

But Macron has appeared in no hurry to grant him an audience.

On Tuesday, he held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where the two vowed to work together to promote stability in the Indo-Pacific area in a way that precludes “any form of hegemony.”

The row comes seven months ahead of presidential elections in which the centrist Macron, who came to power in 2017 on a promise to boost France’s global standing, is expected to seek a second term.

For Frederic Charillon, professor of political science at the University of Clermont Auvergne, the row is “both an opportunity and a risk” for the incumbent.

By lobbing the diplomatic equivalent of a grenade at the US and Australia, “he has sort of got his back against the wall and cannot afford to make a mistake,” Charillon said.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who remains highly influential among right-wing voters, on Tuesday praised Macron’s handling of the crisis.

“President Macron was right to react firmly,” he told reporters.

The crisis risks accentuating long-standing French fears over a loss of global influence.

An Ipsos poll published in September 2020 showed 78 percent of the French are convinced their country is in decline.

On Tuesday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who polls show as Macron’s closest rival, went on the attack over what she has called the “humiliation of France” in the Pacific, home to over a quarter of a million French citizens living on the French archipelago of New Caledonia.

“Emmanuel Macron, since the start of his term, has gone from failure to failure,” said Le Pen, whom Macron defeated in 2017.

For Gilles Gressani, president of the Groupe d’Etudes Geopolitiques think tank, such showdowns with the US are “a constant feature of French foreign policy”.

But even when compared with other famous transatlantic rows – Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s military command in 1966 over what he saw as US hegemony in Europe and Jacques Chirac vetoed the US war in Iraq at the UN in 2003 –  “the intensity of (France’s) reaction is striking”, Gressani said.

Macron’s next-closest rival after Le Pen, centre-right politician Xavier Bertrand, fumed that France was being treated “like the Americans’ valet” and said Paris should consider quitting NATO’s integrated command, a decade after it returned to the alliance’s top table.

“In France, in this type of situation, each candidate attempts to show they are the most Gaullist,” Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research, told AFP, referring to De Gaulle’s legacy.

Macron himself drew condemnation in 2019 for declaring that NATO was “brain dead” over the lack of coordination between the US and its allies.

Analysts say he has now put himself in a position where he cannot back down without the risk of losing face.

“If Emmanuel Macron gets something from the United States and manages to save face, the French will be grateful to him. If he gets nothing it will be detrimental to him,” said Pascale Boniface, director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.


Member comments

  1. If it triggers a move towards a European Defense Force formed from the EU’s military capabilities, then no, Macron has not gone too far.
    NATO is an anachronism, it was formed to counter the military MIGHT of the Soviet Union, not just the military STRENGTH of Russia. We do not need non-EU military personnel on our soil, nor their nuclear weapons – again, the idea of a nuclear exchange is an anachronism. We should be more concerned about cyber attacks that weaken us economically than an exchange of nuclear weapons that would devastate all participants.
    The EU must think about its own security arrangements and then form general alliances with other nations that share our democratic values. Then we will face less pressure to comply should an ally feel the need to flex its military muscles internationally.
    BTW, I was a Cold War warrior (Royal Air Force pilot), committed to the defence of our Western values against the expansionist communist vision of the Soviets – a vision now thankfully confined to history. Yes, China is a problem but an economic one that must be countered by robust trade policies and not the threat of nuclear annihilation; the idea of the Chinese Army, or for that matter the Russian Army, invading the EU is just ridiculous and a fantasy of the white-haired sabre-rattlers tied to the past and the arms manufacturers happy to support them in their delusions.
    In conclusion, a commitment to an European Defense Force politically strengthened by EU, rather than just French, representation on the Security Council could be a positive outcome of this trade fiasco.

    1. Delusional I’m afraid.There is no possibility that the Eastern European States of the EU will see France as a substitute for the US/UK or the EU as a substitute for NATO. Complete non-starter.

      1. Thanks Alan,
        But how do you know? How are you an authority on the thinking of the Eastern European States? Which Eastern European States – do they all think and act the same?
        We have spent 70 years building a community, first based on economics, then on values: especially law and justice, internally then externally. Defense of our EU values ie. a European Defense Force is the next logical step, maybe with an incremental approach – first within NATO, but with the long-term aim of standing on our own feet.
        Deluded thinking? I don’t think so, after all, this is not a new idea and, especially with the US’s European lapdog (ie. the UK) out of the process, more likely to become reality. If France/Germany/Italy/Spain come to see it as a viable option to a US-dominated anachronism there may be enough impetus to make it happen.
        Trump openly expressing the USA’s self-interest (the only “special relationship” the USA has is with the US$!) was a wake-up call to the EU and showed that the World’s largest Western democracy was not immune to “off-kilter” leadership. Even our “so-called” buddy Biden wants to tell Germany where it can buy its energy and happily muscles-in on a French submarine deal, closely followed by the panting lapdog of course.
        We must stand up for ourselves and insulate against a repeat Trump scenario perhaps in only a few years time!

        1. All a bit rambling but in any event overtaken by events as EU states have either said nothing or, like Denmark, come out in defiant support of NATO and hostility to an EU substitute. Germany was so supportive that they almost immediately signed an aerospace security agreement with Australia. Meanwhile it’s EU business as usual with the Americans and the French ambassador returns there tomorrow, tail between his legs no doubt. Everything about the EU is either half-finished or impossible to agree. How can an army be the next logical step for a random collection of countries where there is no common language and four of the member states are neutral. As for its economic values , these seem set around a single currency with no capacity to issue sovereign debt and massively damaging agro-dumping in Africa thanks to the CAP. The whole thing is a corrupt mess and its only saving grace is that any of the members of this ‘superstate’ can leave on giving 2 years notice.

  2. It did smack a little bit of stomping off in a huff. The future security situation in the Pacific may well justify Australia rethinking their needs but one can understand France’s anger. A contract such as that provides jobs for many so it’s not just the value of the contract itself but the people who will be unemployed as a result. Typically of the governments of the US and the UK, they don’t really care about the little people who get trampled underfoot.

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