No One Does Self-Interested Arms Deals Like the French

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An expert’s point of view on a current event.

Paris’s complaints about AUKUS are remarkably hypocritical given France’s history of selling weapons despite its allies’ objections.

By , an author on political risk and macroeconomic trends.
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in Lens, France on Nov. 9, 2018. ETIENNE LAURENT/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

When it comes to demonstrations of indignation, no one does them quite like the French.

The revelation that the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia had signed a new defense compact—popularly known as AUKUS—is said to have come to the attention of the Quai d’Orsay, France’s foreign ministry, “through media reports.” AUKUS came along with a perfidious Anglo-Saxon deal that provides Australia with previously secret nuclear submarine technology and allows the Aussies to jettison a poorly conceived $65 billion contract for 12 French-designed Barracuda diesel-electric submarines. This is a huge blow to the French armaments industry, the world’s third largest behind the United States and Russia, and an even bigger blow to Gallic pride.

There was a démarche, of course, and declarations of umbrage by prominent French officials and public figures. “Duplicity,” declared French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

“Betrayal,” French Ambassador to Washington Philippe Etienne lamented. “A public humiliation,” according to the right-populist leader Marine Le Pen.

And to punctuate this symphony of distress, Paris recalled Etienne back to France, a move once reserved for moments when two countries found themselves on the brink of war. After some quick telephone diplomacy between U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, Etienne was headed back to the Beltway. Having spent a week huffing and puffing about their mistreatment at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons, perhaps it is beginning to dawn on the French that their own record of double-dealing in the global arms bazaar is nonpareil.

Just a few short years ago, in 2014, the Obama administration was wrestling with a different kind of French naval armaments debacle: Paris’s determination to sell two large helicopter carriers to Russia. When I wrote about the controversial sale in 2014, just months after Russia invaded and absorbed Crimea, the French defense minister of the day, the very same Le Drian so attuned to duplicity today, claimed the sale would go ahead regardless because France only intended to deliver unarmed “civilian hulls” to Vladimir Putin’s Navy.

It took another four months for the French to effectively cancel the sale of the two Mistral-class carriers to Moscow, and Paris refunded the entire $1.2 billion down payment Russia had made. Had it not been for Putin’s adventurism in Crimea, the vigorous arguments from U.S. officials and France’s alarmed Eastern European NATO allies notwithstanding, those two ships would be flying the Russian naval ensign.

This was not the first time France chose to ignore the concerns of its allies in pursuing arms sales. An even more significant episode took place in 2009, when the French sealed another submarine deal, this time a nuclear one, with Brazil. It’s easy to forget given the mess Brazil has since stumbled into, but at the time double-digit growth and a lot of foolish talk about the BRICS emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) had the Brazilian leader of the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, thinking that a little rising-power bling might be in order. So, as one does, he ordered up a nuclear-powered attack submarine, and the French were only too happy to oblige.

This raised some concerns in Britain, which still retains sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, the archipelago over which it fought a short, nasty war following Argentina’s seizure of the islands in 1982. Back then, though the Royal Navy’s nose was bloodied in the recapture of the islands, there was little fear among British admirals of sending a fleet to the South Atlantic to confront the Argentines. Brazil backs Argentina’s continuing claim on the islands, and though it is hardly hostile to the United Kingdom, the presence of a Brazilian nuclear submarine changes the strategic calculus in the region. So, too, did the discovery of oil off the Falklands in 2010.

Britain’s fears over the South Atlantic may well be misplaced, but the fact is France didn’t care either way. Today, construction continues on Brazil’s lone nuclear attack sub, the SSN Álvaro Alberto, which is not due to be commissioned until 2034. Current estimates say the Alberto will cost $7.4 billion, which doesn’t make up for the $65 billion France lost in the Australian sub deal or the $1.2 billion it had to pay back to Putin.

As many have pointed out, in the long term, AUKUS probably makes a great deal more sense for Australia’s national defense—and the broader Western interest in countering China’s aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific—than continuing with the construction of French boats whose original cost had already doubled due to delays, cost overruns, and the usual defense industry shenanigans. This also is in keeping with the emerging Biden Doctrine, which might best be described as, “Do the right thing, but do it really badly.”

As in the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, which also caught allies unawares, and the less spectacular but still pusillanimous climbdown with regard to Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline—a Russian strategic victory that Ukraine and Poland had begged the United States to resist—the ultimate outcome of major Biden foreign-policy decisions to date has been to bow to the inevitable yet piss off pretty much everyone. Now the French are furious, too, but given their own past arms dealings, it’s hard to take them very seriously.

Very likely, this episode will wax and wane in the familiar pattern of previous alleged affronts to French honor: the resort to Freedom Fries during the run-up to the Iraq War, the outrage at U.S. opposition to the French-British attempt to steal the Suez Canal from Egypt in 1956, and the ignominious memory of being liberated from their own collaborationist government by the Anglo-Saxons on D-Day.

It’s all a good reminder that those who raise outrage to the level of fine art have very selective memories. And while the submarines France hoped to sell were Barracudas, the tears shed by its officials look very much like those of a crocodile.

Michael Moran is an author, documentarian, and commentator on global affairs and a senior executive at Microshare, a global Smart Buildings data intelligence and sustainability firm.

Foreign Policy



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