It was headlines that are always typical in foreign policy crisis situations: ambassadors withdrawn, ministerial meetings canceled, festive gala canceled. Only those involved in this diplomatic power skirmish were rather untypical. Here France reacted to the recently agreed alliance between the USA, Australia and Great Britain in the Indo-Pacific region (AUKUS). This was accompanied by the termination of a 56 billion euro contract for the purchase of French, diesel-powered submarines in favor of models made by American manufacturers. Thanks to their nuclear drive, these can operate autonomously under water for longer.
From an Australian point of view, the decision in favor of AUKUS is understandable, says Admiral François Dupont, military advisor to the French General Staff and submarine commander himself in the 1990s: “There is a greater cultural closeness between these states and of course it can happen that each other change the strategic interests of a country after a contractual agreement. “
Nevertheless, the reaction of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was drastic. Otherwise known as a man of measured words, Drian accused the USA of “lies and duplicity” and thus showed how much the affair scratches France’s self-image. Because as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and as a nuclear weapon nation with overseas departments in different corners of the world, the country sees itself pushed off the international stage by Australia’s decision. Many people are now calling for a reorganization of European defense and security policy in order to continue to be heard in the world. François Dupont, however, warns of the force shifts caused by AUKUS, because the atomic muscle game is currently unpredictable and dangerous. “There was a balance of horror during the Cold War, but it’s out of whack. The situation is much more worrying now than it was then, but the public perception of the threat posed by nuclear weapons submarines is not very present. “
No place at the table
In addition to the geostrategic loss of importance, the so-called deal of the century that has failed is a severe blow for France’s arms industry. “The enormous efforts to get the contract through, to wipe away overnight, that hurts,” says Dupont. The Naval Group has already announced that it will demand maximum compensation payments from Australia, because the construction of the twelve Barracuda submarines accounts for ten percent of the company’s turnover – and work in the Naval shipyard in Cherbourg is already in full swing. A debate has long since broken out about the role of armaments in the French industrial portfolio. Because French industry is focused on the production of highly specialized weapons systems – over 20 percent of the research budget goes into this sector – the economy is extremely dependent on foreign and defense policy decisions by the government. In other areas, such as mechanical engineering, it is even dependent on imports.
France is trapped: in Gaullist fashion, the country’s elite relied on the arms industry for decades to secure a place on the table of world politics. But what if nobody asked you to dinner anymore?