OPINION: Macron got concessions for France from Biden in the wake of submarine row

OPINION: Macron got concessions for France from Biden in the wake of submarine row
Friends again? Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron pictured in June. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP
After almost a week of newspaper headlines, diplomatic gestures and finally a phone call, John Lichfield looks at how the Australian submarine crisis has played out for Emmanuel Macron.

So Emmanuel and Joe kissed and made up and Boris tried to make a joke of the whole affair while titillating his supporters by mocking Emmanuel.

Is the great submarine crisis of 2021 over? No. There is still much of this strange saga which is unexplained – submerged if you like.

President Macron still faces awkward questions.

OPINION: Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about Nato

How did France miss so many signs and symptoms that the US, Australia and Britain were plotting behind France’s back?

What is France’s true strength and importance militarily and diplomatically if the Anglo-Saxon trio was prepared to humiliate Paris in this way?

Is there something about Macron himself – his tendency to lecture; his cocksure certainty – which made him the target, not just France?

For the time being, Macron has emerged from this murky business reasonably well. It is unlikely, I think, to damage him domestically.

He obtained, in his joint statement with President Biden on Wednesday night, what amounted to an American apology (a rare event). He seems, on paper at least, to have gained a couple of concessions from the United States on support for European defence policy and further US logistical help for the French-led anti-Islamist war in the Sahel.

How solid those commitments from Washington are remains to be seen.

Relations between Paris and Canberra remain – and will remain for some time – plunged into a freeze of Antarctic intensity.

Relations between Paris and London will continue as before – miserably bad on the surface; correct and even cooperative at the practical level beyond the tabloid headlines.

Boris Johnson’s little franglais joke – asking Macron to “donnez moi un break” – will confirm the view in Paris that the current British Prime Minister is not a serious person; that he turns everything into either a joke or a lie.

Johnson was promoting the false view – common in the UK media but also the US media – that France was merely sulking because it had lost a €56bn submarine contract signed with Australia five years ago. Nothing to see here. Just normal business. Just the French being the French.

That is not what happened. The US, the UK and Australia had been in secret talks for six months on a new Indo-Pacific security pact including a vague promise to build US-UK nuclear submarines to replace the French ones (diesel powered at Australia’s insistence).

The AUSUK pact, announced last Wednesday without notice, blew up not only the French submarine deal but also, in effect, a nine-year-old security and cooperation agreement between Paris and Canberra. (France, let us recall, is an Indo-Pacific power with five French overseas territories or départements in the region.)

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The secrecy of the talks and the undiplomatic brutality of the AUKUS announcement, was seen in Paris as a deliberate hit by the United States – a warning that Washington saw Indo-Pacific security and future relations between China and the West as the exclusive interest of the US and English-speaking junior partners.

The French said that they had documentary proof that the US had lied to them. On the day of the AUKUS announcement they said, they received a letter from an Australian admiral saying Canberra wanted to push ahead with the next stage of the French submarine deal.

The issue, France said, was not just a submarine contract. It was how allies behaved to one another. If they behaved in this way, should they be considered allies at all?

Macron, we were told, was incandescent with rage. But he said nothing in public. He didn’t call Canberra or London. He refused to take a call from President Biden until Wednesday. He did call the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. He did – with some, but far from complete, success – urge other European governments and the European Commission to make statements supporting France.

The strategy seems to have been to distance Macron from the quarrel and big up his role in the solution – or temporary solution.

It is worth going line by line through the short Macron-Biden statement after their phone call on Wednesday evening.

It is made clear that Biden sought the call, not Macron. It is stated that “the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”. That’s as close to an apology as France was ever likely to get.

The two presidents say they will meet in October.

Then Biden gives Macron three cadeaux.

He accepts the “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region”.

He  “recognises the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO”.

He commits the US to “reinforcing its support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel conducted by European states”.

The European defence statement is important. The US has always (rightly) wanted European countries to spend more on their own defence – but as part of Nato. Biden here is accepting the Macron Doctrine – that EU countries should have their own defence and security policy separate to Nato but in cooperation with it.

Does it mean anything? Is Biden really changing settled US policy? Or just sweet-talking Macron?

Other questions remain. Was AUKUS really a hit on France as well as China? Or was it clumsy diplomacy by one part of the Biden administration not talking to another? Or something cynically pushed by the US and UK arms industries?

Much of the submarine crisis remains unexplained. Maybe it will be forced to the surface one day. Maybe not.


Member comments

  1. John, you are very biased here and seem not to know the full story. The original contract was for 50 million, the last , most recent estimate was for 97 million a huge over-run and, the first stage has not been completed. The completion date has also been extended by many years.
    The French ambassador to Australia has not been ‘on the job’. For at least two years there have been calls from an enormous amount of Australians and military personnel to cancel this contract.
    It should never have been entered into, and it was never fit for purpose.

    Australia needs to protect itself. China has threatened attack, and has been using Australia to make an example to all western nations, cancelling many important trade contracts, because Australia pushed for a full enquiry into the origins of Co-Vid.

    1. Agree with you Lee. Macron making a fuss on the contract because its election year and jobs=votes. On the EU funding a credible force to replace NATO, that Alan thinks unfeasible, I also agree that seems unlikely that EU has political balls to spend the money on a new force when it can’t support the NATO arrangement. One day the US might decide to walk away from the existing NATO, save money and perhaps just have Ireland and UK in a defence treaty and say to Europe, sort yourselves out & don’t come crying to the USA is Russia rolls over the borders. US Presidents have always had to resist isolationist home voices and Europe has forgotten how much it relied on the US big stick when dealing with Russia and other threat to European security.

    2. To be fair to the French, I think the overruns were because the Australian defence ministry altered the spec. which was for non nuclear.
      They have, I think, very little experience of nuclear.
      Personnally I think it is, as usual, a huge fuss about nothing where China and Russia are concerned. The last thing they need is a war but they are determined never to be pushed around again by a West that talks human rights and peace but treats weak adversaries like a doormat.
      We need to reflect that this is payback time for 150 years of insults, humiliations including death and destruction. Fortunately for us it is not payback in full or the Chinese would be occupying the Isle of Wight.

  2. Johnson’s comments are unhelpful but it is worth remembering just how spectacularly Macron stabbed the U.K. at various moments during Brexit ‘negotiations’. Manu could never claim to be a friend of the British because his general dislike of them is quite palpable. It is also quite apparent that he sees himself as a future, perhaps the first, president of a federal Europe although nobody dares mention that.

    1. There were break clauses in the contract. Australia took advantage of one of them. Macron knows what his man signed. All the brouhaha is electoral. Maaybe he hoped the Aussies would be polite enought to wait until after the elections before blowing up the contract.
      But it is true “Biden” or whoever is driving the White House, have thrown France some crumbs as John Litchfield says. Retention of control over West Europe and the EU is a US strategic priority. He missed one crumb, which is the return sale of the vital nuclear bits of Alstom that a certain E.Macron, Minister of the Economy allowed to be sold to GE despite furious protests from within France. This put the entire French nuclear industry civil and military at the mercy of Washington for spare parts. Pretty embarrassing with an election coming up. Negotiations for its return have now formally opened between GE and EDF.

  3. So far as I can see all Macron’s histrionics have achieved is to flush out which EU countries are ready to follow France out of NATO and substitute dependency on UK/US for dependency on France and Germany. Looks like none of them. In fact, it seems they’re not particularly bothered by the new Australian alliance at all and Germany has only this week signed a new aerospace security agreement with Australia. Time for a re-think in Paris.

  4. Lichfield is making himself look just as silly as Macron already does. No doubt Johnson’s japery is not befitting a country as great as a sovereign U.K. but Macron is seriously deluded.
    An independent EU army (a contradiction in terms) if at all possible, is years away, decades probably. In the meantime, Macron and his followers need to face facts: An American led military group of nations is the only game in town, pay your subs and STFU.

    1. I agree completely. How can you have a unified Euro Army if there isn’t even a unified foreign policy ? This is going to end up during the French EU presidency with some kind of pledge to buy more French armaments and giving a couple of tanks to Frontex. The pitiful aspect to all of this is it will do nothing for the sense of security of the European population.

  5. I wish john Lichfield would research more thoroughly before writing this stuff.
    Fact: the French submarine contract was way overpriced and getting more expensive.
    Fact: Like all contracts, this one had various milestones and break points in it. The Aussies just took advantage of one of those to bale out, happens every day.
    Fact: The Aussies have been making lots of unwelcome noise about the French deal for a couple of years at least, the French chose to ignore it
    Fact: The RAN have coveted nuclear powered submarines for years and my contacts there told me that the RAN never wanted the French boats in the first place. ​
    Fact: The Aussies will now get a far superior, more stealthy capability with which to combat the Chinese.
    Fact: The RAN are delighted with the AUKUS submarine deal.
    Fact: The Australians are arguably a more reliable Western ally than the French since World War II.
    The rest Mr Lichfield is just the usual political manoeuvring and face saving!

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