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What’s the big ruckus over the new defense partnership with the U.K. and Australia?

France isn’t happy about being sidelined by the new U.S. alliance for Indo-Pacific security

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Biden attend a news conference via audio visual link at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Sept. 16. (Mick Tsikas/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Think China is angered at the new AUKUS defense partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia? Meet the French, to whom the announcement on Sept. 15 came as a complete shock. France apparently learned of the new trilateral security partnership on the day it was publicly announced.

It’s not just that this partnership doesn’t include France. At issue is the U.S. decision to share technology for building nuclear-powered submarines with its Australian allies — this first AUKUS initiative ruptures a lucrative contract France made in 2016 to supply submarines to Australia.

Of course, as former French ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud said on Twitter, we already knew that “the world is a jungle.” It’s also true that France shares the goals of ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific and keeping China in check. So why are the French so enraged?

For France — America’s oldest ally — this perceived backstabbing represents direct economic loss, an indirect undermining of European integration and dashed hopes about renewed diplomatic closeness with the United States in the post-Trump era.

The deal is a direct economic loss for France

The French government is furious at the loss of expected revenue from the 2016 contract between Australia and France’s Naval Group to build 12 attack-class submarines for a cost of about $40 billion.

Some reports suggest that Naval was behind schedule and the project’s estimated costs had inflated beyond the initial budget. The delays pose a serious problem for Australia, already concerned about waiting until 2035 for the first planned submarine delivery when so many submarines are already operating in Indo-Pacific waters and amid increased tensions with China.

The broken contract will undoubtedly lead to court battles and maybe compensation for the French company. But French President Emmanuel Macron, who is up for reelection next year, was likely counting on the hundreds of jobs to be gained from the “deal of the century.”

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AUKUS may indirectly undermine the E.U.

Beyond the perceived breach of trust, the French are also angered by what AUKUS may mean for European integration. For the European Union, Brexit posed an existential threat, had the U.K. departure prompted other E.U. members to take similar moves to abandon the union. While the E.U. found itself united with the upper hand in the separation negotiations, the U.K. can succeed in the post-Brexit world only if it receives outside support for its “Global Britain” strategy.

Including the U.K. in the AUKUS partnership — while excluding France — means the E.U. may view the U.S. as siding with the U.K. in the European divorce. As one journalist put it, the “AUKUS deal is any Brexiter’s dream.” To add insult to injury, the AUKUS big reveal took place on the eve of the day when the E.U. was long due to roll out its own new Indo-Pacific strategy.

Despite the strength of the transatlantic alliance, both economic and military, President Donald Trump famously said in 2018 that the E.U. is the U.S.’s greatest global foe. The undercutting of the existing French defense contract and exclusion of France from the partnership while including post-Brexit Britain, reinforces the European perception that American anti-E.U. policy, or at least a pivot away from Europe, may be more systemic than a Trumpian fluke.

The deal weakens French trust in its U.S. ally

And many in France may see the AUKUS submarine deal as confirmation that the U.S. ally can no longer be trusted, even in the post-Trump era. The French rejoiced at Biden’s election — Pew surveys report French opinion of the image of America rebounded by 34 points immediately after the 2020 election, as it had during the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama in 2008.

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French diplomats reportedly were looking forward to a U.S. administration that would cooperate with transatlantic partners on issues ranging from climate change to anti-terrorism, and work together on addressing the China challenge. Instead, they found unilateral American decisions made without consultation. This business-as-usual unilateralism may rekindle some secular anti-Americanism in France and beyond.

Was this a deliberate U.S. snub?

The French government is now wondering why the U.S. administration made this “brutal, unilateral and unpredictable” decision, as French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian bluntly said, and what it means going forward.

Could this be an unfortunate diplomatic stumble? Despite the experienced officials at the top of the Biden foreign policy team, the administration continues to grapple with the consequences of the hollowing out of the State Department and the resignations of foreign policy professionals during the Trump administration. In the case of AUKUS, perhaps there was some internal miscommunication about the involvement of France in the region or about the analysis of how the French might perceive the new partnership. And maybe Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a Francophile who spent part of his childhood in Paris, was preoccupied with congressional hearings on Afghanistan and did not catch this potential diplomatic blunder.

Analysts have pointed out other possible explanations, including the trade-off between notifying an ally and keeping the news secret until the deal is completed. And the increasing domination of the National Security Council in U.S. foreign policymaking may have created a more singular focus on countering China, with less emphasis on thinking through any potential implications for U.S. relations with longtime allies.

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Harder to rationalize, however, is the idea that this was a deliberate move by the Biden administration to undercut the Franco-American alliance and transatlantic cooperation — an “American choice which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner,” as the French ministers of foreign affairs and armed forces said in a scathing joint statement. It is possible that those handling the AUKUS deal — U.S. officials in charge of weapons sales — saw the economic benefits of the submarine contract as exceeding the diplomatic costs of angering France.

One immediate victim of the AUKUS torpedo is the just-canceled gala that was supposed to take place on Friday in Baltimore and Washington to celebrate the historical Franco-American alliance. And late Friday afternoon, France recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States, citing the need for consultations in Paris after the “exceptional gravity” of the AUKUS announcement. The real question is how much longer-term damage may emerge.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the French announcement that both ambassadors have been recalled to Paris.

Sophie Meunier is senior research scholar at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of the European Union Program at Princeton.

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