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France-Australia: Salving the wounds of AUKUS

After the crisis over the subs deal, both countries stand to benefit from a normalisation of ties.

The change in government in Australia was the turning point (Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images)
The change in government in Australia was the turning point (Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images)

If a week is a long time in politics, 18 months makes for a lifetime in diplomacy. That’s the time now elapsed since the “stab in the back” ­– words French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian used to describe Australia’s surprise announcement in September 2021 to scrap a $90 billion contract for 12 French-designed diesel-powered Attack class submarines in favour of a nuclear-powered option in collaboration with the United States and United Kingdom.

But France and Australia are now putting AUKUS behind them. This week in Paris saw the latest step towards normalisation of the relationship, with the second-ever Franco-Australian Foreign and Defence Ministerial Consultations – also referred to as a 2+2 meeting. The headline announcement was a joint plan to manufacture 155mm artillery shells to provide Ukraine resistance to Russia’s invasion, with a French company to provide the shells, while Australia supplies the gunpowder.

We have come a long way since French President Emmanuel Macron accused then Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying.

This announcement will undoubtedly be welcome news to Kyiv since these shells are essential to the military equipment provided by key Western partners. The fact that this will not be a one-off delivery but appears to be an ongoing commitment is also significant.

But beyond the impact on the conflict in Ukraine, this partnership shows that the relationship between France and Australia is progressively improving. Following the announcement of the co-production of the artillery shells, France’s ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thébault went as far as saying that the relationship was fully repaired. This is a bit of a stretch, since decisions such as the one made by Australia to retire its European-made Taipan helicopter fleet early and to replace it with 40 American-made UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters keep creating tensions between the two countries. Yet it is undeniable that we have come a long way since French President Emmanuel Macron accused then Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying.

The 2+2 with Foreign and Defence ministers of Australia and France (DFAT)
The 2+2 with Foreign and Defence ministers of Australia and France (DFAT)

Many factors have made this normalisation possible, but three are particularly significant.

First, Canberra has acknowledged that France is a key Indo-Pacific power, which is something that was particularly important to Paris as it is keen to promote France’s international status and in particular its role in the region.

Second, the $835 million payment made by Australia for the cancellation of the submarine deal was crucial.

But the real turning point was the change in government in Australia with the election of Anthony Albanese in May 2022. It allowed both Macron’s and Albanese’s respective administrations to claim that what happened was not a breach of trust between France and Australia, but by Morrison’s government specifically. While this claim somewhat oversimplified the crisis, it provided a powerful narrative to help move past it. US President Joe Biden had used a similar approach when he attempted to appease the tensions with France by shifting some of the blame to Morrison, claiming that he “was under the impression that France had been informed long before”.

As a result, ever since Albanese came to power, Paris and Canberra have kept emphasising that their relationship would be based “on mutual trust and respect”.

So what now?

This normalisation is good news for both Australia and France. For instance, while Paris does not speak for the European Union, France can be expected to go back to promoting negotiations of the free trade agreement between Australia and the EU and to help negotiate some of Canberra’s less popular requests. This support had stopped following the AUKUS announcement after Macron sought to “Europeanise” the crisis and slow down the negotiations.

For France, stronger cooperation with Australia is also a boon. Prior to the AUKUS-induced breakdown, Paris had clearly identified Australia as a pillar of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

In coming years, three areas of cooperation have been identified as particularly important. First, Paris and Canberra want to increase military cooperation in order to promote a rules-based international order, which involves containing China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles flagged talks about pursuing a reciprocal access agreement, which would take the military cooperation between the two countries to a new level. Marles and his French counterpart Sébastien Lecornu also signed “a declaration of intent between the two countries on military space cooperation”. Increased cooperation in the field of climate change is also expected, through climate finance and climate change mitigation, along with education and culture.

What concrete steps are taken in coming months – particularly after the announcement of the AUKUS “optimal pathway” in March ­– will be key to fully grasping the place Franco-Australian cooperation has in Australian foreign policy. But for now, these latest announcements confirm what was suspected following Albanese’s visit to Paris in July 2022: that the relationship between France and Australia is normalising and the worst of the AUKUS tensions have receded.

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