Why Is France Losing Its Merde Over Submarines

You've already lost when Boris Johnson has a good joke about you

Art by Jack Koloskus

For the past week, France has been in un huff about submarines. The source of their douleur involves a defense contract that went awry, thanks to an overtly backstabbing deal from the Biden Administration that roped in Australia, England, and a dash of alarmism over China’s strengthening military presence abroad. In response, the république has recalled several ambassadors — the diplomatic equivalent of switching tables in a high school cafeteria — prompting a lot of international agita and this incredible quote from Boris Johnson:

I just think it’s time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prennez un grip about all this and donnez-moi un break because this is a fundamentally a great step forward for global security.

What’s going on with all this? Let’s dive in.

Back in 2019, a French defense contractor called the Naval Group, which is partially owned by the French government, inked a deal with Australia to produce a fleet of 12 submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. The Aussies wanted to strengthen their military capabilities due to increased Chinese strategic presence in the Pacific; Naval Group wanted a big check to help win lucrative contracts in Europe and Asia. The submarine deal, then worth a hefty $35 billion, was the largest the latter ever signed — and accordingly complicated.

Naval Group was first awarded the deal in April of 2016, over competing bids from contractors in Japan and Germany. But hashing out the fine print took two years of planning, a G20 summit in Argentina, and extensive negotiations between Emmanuel Macron and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. When the ink dried in February of 2019, Naval Group’s chairman and CEO called the arrangement a “50-year wedding.”

But last week, the marriage was annulled before Macron and Morrison could even plan their honeymoon. On Sept. 15, Joe Biden announced at a virtual press conference that the U.S. had formed a new security partnership with the U.K. and Australia — which they were calling, regrettably, “Aukus” (Australia — U.K. — U.S.). As part of the deal, the States would help Australia build a different fleet of submarines — these ones using a nuclear-propulsion technology that the U.S. had previously shared only with England.

These ships are, per FT, “faster and more stealthy than conventional submarines;” America also agreed to make them for less money. The upside for the U.S. was obvious. The conference, which included Morrison and British PM Boris Johnson, was laced with barely-veiled references to China:

Biden said the initiative, including the submarine plan, was necessary to ensure the countries had the best technology to “defend against rapidly evolving threats,” in rhetoric that appeared to be aimed at Beijing.

A side effect of this alliance, of course, was that France’s deal was scrapped — a fact French diplomats only found out the day the new deal was announced. Basically right away, they got their baguettes twisted on the global stage. The country’s foreign minister and defense minister said the deal indicated a “lack of coherence,” dragging Australia for acting “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation” between the two nations. They also called out the U.S. — its ally for more than two centuries — for excluding them from the deal. Here are the two French ministers:

The regrettable decision . . . only reinforces the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear. There is no other credible way to defend our interests and our values in the world, including in the Indo-Pacific.

The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to cool their tempers, noting in a press conference that France remained a “vital partner” in U.S. defense efforts against China. But no dice. By Friday, France had recalled its ambassadors from Washington D.C. and the Australian capital, Canberra. In an absolutely withering burn to Britain, France let its London envoys stay, calling the former empire “a bit like the fifth wheel on the coach.”

In the days since, some evidence has emerged that the original submarine deal had been falling apart before the U.S. intervened. Reuters reported Tuesday that as early as 2018, an independent review board in Australia had advised the government to pursue alternative options for the deal, which had ballooned in cost to $60 billion, causing many Australian officials to say “oh naur.” France however, remains énervée.

“There has been a lie,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said over the weekend. “There has been duplicity, there has been a major breach of trust, there has been contempt, so it’s not OK between us, it’s not OK at all. That means that there is a crisis.”