The Great French Sulk Over Submarines.

Graham Charles Lear
12 min readSep 19, 2021
Joe Biden, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson said they had ‘discussed a number of issues of mutual concern, including the Indo-Pacific region’.

The nuclear-powered fallout from the UK’s new defence alliance, from Paris to Beijing is outstanding.

Let's at ‘the Big French Sulk’, Chinese bellicosity, and the re-emergence of Global Britain.

Part one, the French fuming and what is ARKUS.

French fume after the UK, US & Australia torpedo their €50bn submarine contract

Angry tirades, threats of action, and a cancelled French gala in Washington.

Let's summarise the AUKUS facts
with reports from Paris, London, Washington, Canberra, Beijing, and Brussels

  1. What happened on Wednesday — What is ‘AUKUS’?
  2. The fuming French react with anger, threats, and petulance
  3. The Brexit Bonus — French jobs will be transferred to the UK
  4. This would not have been possible under the EU

French tempers flared in Paris and Cherbourg, as government ministers and union officials took to the airwaves to condemn the actions of the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia in unilaterally declaring a defence alliance.

Not only have the French been excluded from this new ‘AUKUS’ alliance, despite its large naval forces, but the new alliance means that France’s €50bn deal with Australia to build 12 new submarines has been scuttled.

What happened on Wednesday and yesterday — What is ‘AUKUS’?

On Wednesday Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Joe Biden, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a joint announcement to the World via video link. New defence and a strategic alliance have been formed between the three countries.

“We are announcing the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership called “AUKUS” — Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”

“As the first initiative under AUKUS, recognizing our common tradition as maritime democracies, we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.”

“We will leverage expertise from the United States and the United Kingdom, building on the two countries’ submarine programs to bring an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date.”

“Recognizing our deep defence ties, built over decades, today we also embark on further trilateral collaboration…. These initial efforts will focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.”

- Joint statement, 15 Sep 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Joe Biden, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison

The impact of this on the French — and their anger

The first and most obvious consequence for France of the new alliance is that their agreement with Australia to build 12 new diesel-powered submarines from the French base at Cherbourg will now be torn up. Originally signed in December 2016 by the Australian Prime Minister and by France’s Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the deal was said to be worth €34.5bn at the time and was expected to generate 3–4,000 new jobs in France. The total contract is now valued at over €56bn.

Paris billed this as “the contract of the century” in 2016, so it is not surprising that the reaction in France has been very strong. One of the most vocal condemnations came from the man who signed the initial agreement — now the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister for Europe, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Monsieur Le Drian and the French Minister of the Armies issued a joint statement yesterday, before taking to the media. In one notable interview on French TV Mr Le Drian used terms like “un coup dans le dos” (a stab in the back) and “une rupture de confiance majeure”, and a “décision brutale” on the part of the US. He described himself as being “angry and very bitter”.

In one comment which was clearly designed to hurt President Biden, he even said: “This brutal, unilateral, unpredictable decision looks very much like what Mr Trump used to do… Allies don’t do this to each other… It’s rather insufferable.”

The French loss of face

On top of the commercial losses to the economy, the French loss of face must not be underestimated. For an agreement to be signed between three major Anglosphere countries, and which excluded France which considers itself to be a major maritime power, will not play well with French voters.

It is even more galling for France when considering that nearly two million French citizens live in the Indo-Pacific region and that some 7,000 French soldiers are based there.

So far the French have threatened punitive actions against Australia for damages and yesterday they cancelled a big Washington gala event for this evening, which was supposed to have celebrated 240 years since the Battle of the Chesapeake, a French naval victory over a British fleet during the American Revolution. See how the French were all up for rubbing British noses in it?

The Brexit Bonus — This would not have been possible under the EU

Under the new AUKUS alliance, jobs will in effect be transferred from France to Brexit Britain.

The UK has built and operated world-class nuclear-powered submarines for over 60 years. The depth of expertise has been well-demonstrated in the work carried out by Rolls Royce near Derby and BAE Systems in Barrow, as well as many other locations. Whilst the full details of Australia’s new submarines still need to be decided upon, the design and build process will create hundreds of highly skilled scientific and engineering roles across the UK, and drive investment in some high-tech sectors of the economy.

None of this would have been possible while the United Kingdom was still a member of the European Union. In particular, the UK could not have made such an agreement with the US and Australia without coming up against the “Common Foreign and Security Policy” embodied in the Lisbon Treaty, and by the many extensions of centralised EU foreign and defence policy control which have happened since.

Article 24.1: ‘The common foreign and security policy is subject to specific rules and procedures. It shall be defined and implemented by the European Council and the Council acting unanimously, except where the Treaties provide otherwise.’

Article 24.2: ‘The Union shall conduct [CFSP] based on the development of mutual political solidarity among the Member States and an ‘increasing degree of convergence of Member States’ actions’.

Article 24.3: ‘The Member States … shall refrain from any action which is contrary to the interests of the Union or likely to impair its effectiveness as a cohesive force in international affairs.

Given that the EU Council has to give overall permission, it is certain that France — and possibly many other countries — would have vetoed the UK’s plans.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was clearly in good humour at the announcement of AUKUS on Wednesday when he appeared with the US President and the Australian Prime Minister.

And why not? He has pulled off a coup which gives the newly independent United Kingdom further strategic and defence influence as well as delivering jobs and investment. Not only is the UK now one of the founder members of a new global alignment involving the US and Australia, the new alliance also has the benefit of economic advantage to the UK at the expense of the EU.

Given the nature of their cancelled gala this evening, it might have been thought that the French would have gone ahead if only to point out to the Americans that they once beat the Royal Navy. Given that this was a very rare victory, and given that it happened 240 years ago, perhaps the French Embassy in Washington did the right thing, however.

Part two the Big French Sulk’, the bellicosity of China, and the re-emergence of Global Britain.

The increasing petulance of the French, the rise of ‘Global Britain’, and the response of China to the new alliance.

‘La grande bouderie française’ (‘the Big French Sulk’)

Much of the attack from the French government on the new AUKUS alliance has come from the French Foreign Secretary, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and has been focused on the consequent cancellation of the French contract to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines to Australia. President Macron has remained uncharacteristically quiet, perhaps because he has both eyes on being re-elected next year and does not wish to become too associated with this major blow to French prestige.

Readers will be familiar with some of the barely diplomatic language used by Monsieur Le Drian when the news broke: “betrayal”, “stab in the back”, “major breakdown of trust”, “insufferable”, etc.

Since then he has gone further. On Friday (17 Sep 2021) he issued another statement Jean-Yves Le Drian on French TV yesterday, credit: FranceInfo

At the request of the President of the Republic, I am recalling to Paris without delay our ambassadors to the United States and to Australia for consultations. This exceptional decision is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on 15th September by Australia and the United States.

“The cancellation of the Attack class submarine program binding Australia and France since 2016, and the announcement of a new partnership with the United States … constitute unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners, whose consequences directly affect the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.”

  • Statement by Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs (17 September 2021)

Er… pardon? Why no mention of the United Kingdom?

Readers may be puzzled by the lack of any immediate action by France against the UK and also by no mention being made at all of the UK’s integral involvement in the new AUKUS alliance. No recall of the French Ambassador to the Court of St James, nor any recognition whatsoever that this is a tri-lateral alliance involving the United Kingdom.

The pro-EU media in the rest of Europe has reported unattributed French officials describing the UK as a junior partner, barely worthy of mention.

President Macron’s ‘Attack Puppy’

It fell to the young and ambitious Clement Beaune, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and the man we have previously described as ‘President Macron’s Attack Puppy’, to deliver some scathing remarks about the British involvement in AUKUS. Yesterday he went on France24, France Info, and on Public Senat (the state-run politics and parliamentary channel) to disparage the UK in his typical, anti-British way.

“Our British friends explained to us they were leaving the EU to create Global Britain. We can see that this is a return into the American lap and a form of accepted vassalisation…. The UK is clearly trying to find its feet, perhaps there was a lack of thought about the strategic future. Today they are hiding in the American fold.”

I WILL comment on that later.

There were few surprises in China’s reaction to the news of the alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Here are excerpts from the statement from Zhao Lijian, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, on Thursday 16 Sep 2021:

“The nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts. The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the US and the UK proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards. This is extremely irresponsible.

“As a non-nuclear-weapon state under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and a party to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty, known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, Australia is now introducing nuclear submarine technology of strategic and military value. The international community, including Australia’s neighbouring countries, has full reason to question whether Australia is serious about fulfilling its nuclear non-proliferation commitments. China will pay close attention to the development of the relevant situation.”

“Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception, respect the will of the people of regional countries and do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development. Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.”

Zhao Lijian, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Thurs 16 Sep 2021

Throughout Chinese media and in official statements, the one-party state that is China has constantly referred to the nuclear element, and always refers to the new submarines as “nuclear”, rather than the correct form which is “nuclear-powered”. The Chinese want their people — and those of Indo-Pacific nations — to believe that Australia will have submarines with nuclear weapons. Not only is this completely untrue, but it is also contrary to long-established Australian policy as well as to international non-proliferation treaties.

China now operates outside international law — but no one will say it has become a ‘rogue state’

The list of China’s transgressions against international law and basic standards of human rights has been growing continuously for many years.

When China first opened up to business, western nations and their businesses were keen to rush in and exploit the massive opportunity this represented. For the majority of countries, however, China has done rather better out of the arrangement. China’s trade surplus with the EU is now the biggest out of all countries with which the EU trades, for example. German industry may have sold a significant proportion of its output there, including German cars, but most of the traffic has been the other way.

In a future report, if readers wish, I will summarise the growing list of China’s unacceptable actions and behaviour. Sadly China will become a topic that is likely to dominate foreign news and I am sure readers will wish to know some basic background facts.

What is it with the French?

It is fair to say that one EU country has stood out ‘tête et épaules’ above all others in making life as difficult as possible for Brexit Britain.

From the bureaucratic imposition of every last obstacle to post-Brexit British exporters getting their goods to the EU, to preventing British fishermen from regaining their rights to UK waters, to escorting thousands of illegal migrants across the English Channel, France has been in the vanguard.

In understanding the extreme French reactions it is important to understand certain things.

Firstly, ‘l’amour-propre”, literally ‘self-love’ or more accurately ‘self-esteem’

Make no mistake about it, the new alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia represents a massive blow to French pride. And French pride should never be underestimated.

The reason that the French have barely been able to mention the UK in this row is that to do so would be to recognise the growing importance of the newly independent United Kingdom. As the new Foreign Secretary characterised it in her article in the Daily Telegraph today: “Global Britain plants its flag on the world stage.”

It is one thing for the US and Australia to commit this ‘act of betrayal’, but for France to recognise that its closest rival is an integral part of a new trans-global alliance is just too much.

Secondly, the French are ‘frustré’ by their membership in the EU

France has done very well over the decades of EU membership. It successfully persuaded other countries to spend the largest part of the EU budget on agriculture, for example, and the Common Agricultural Policy then directly subsidised French farmers more than those in any other EU country.

France is now the major military power in the EU following the departure of the United Kingdom and is now the only nuclear power in the bloc. Critically, it is also the only EU country that still has strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, thanks in part to its reluctance to make its former empire independent.

For some years the French have been at the forefront of the drive to create an ‘EU army’, with full EU control of defence operations. With its military strength, France would of course be a major beneficiary. Already, any look at the EU’s military operations shows that many are taking place in francophone countries.

The problem for France is that even after the departure of the UK, other EU countries have been pushing back against the full ‘European Defence Union’ envisaged in the EU Treaty and wholeheartedly promoted by France. This is currently the source of frustration in Paris — even more so now that the newly independent United Kingdom is forging new alliances worldwide.

Finally, lets get back to the China question

Over recent years, China has emerged not only as the world’s second-largest economy but also as the world’s fastest-growing military power. Its navy is now larger than that of the United States in terms of ships, and very soon it will eclipse the US in terms of its offensive power.

Alongside this, we have seen an expansionist Chinese policy in every aspect of global affairs, from influencing educational establishments worldwide to funding huge investments in developing nations, to occupying islands beyond its borders and illegally claiming rights to the South China Sea.

Sources: French Ministry of Foreign Affairs | Foreign Ministry of China | French media |



Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.