Don’t annoy the French

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
The writer
The writer

It is not often we have the opportunity to have ringside seats to witness such high-grade quarrel among top class nations. It is juicy, it is unexpected and we should all enjoy it while it lasts.

Indeed, it is the stuff of dreams and the kind of situation that comes once in a long while and we should count ourselves lucky to be living through it.

I don’t know how the Political Science and School of Diplomacy people are teaching the current story and what wouldn’t I give to see how it will be reported in the History books long after it has all died down.

An open quarrel between France and the United States of America (USA), United Kingdom (UK) and Australia. I suppose the correct way to put it is, France is angry with Australia, USA and the UK.

I refer of course to what is being called the Aukus affair. Put simply, Australia has cancelled a US$90 billion contract it had with France for the French to build 12 submarines for the Australian fleet, something to do with Australia feeling unsafe about the increasing strength of China.

A quarrel along the usual fault lines like between the US and Russia is expected and we can all predict what will be said and if it leads to the recalling of ambassadors and the sacking of diplomats, we would say it is all par for the course and the use of the most violent language during the quarrel would not get many raised eyebrows.  

But an open quarrel among traditional allies and friends is something else.

First lesson

The first lesson that has emerged is that if you can avoid it, you really shouldn’t get into a quarrel with France.

The French language is in a class of its own and in much the same way that it is beautiful and musical when employed in love, it is even more colourful and lyrical when used in anger.

The story of the cancellation of the contract with the French was broken with the announcement that the Australians had engaged the Americans and the British to build the submarines.

French officials promptly accused Australia, the US and the UK of behaving in “an underhand, duplicitous manner that has betrayed and humiliated France”.

The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, himself has led the onslaught: “There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt and this will not do,” he told France 2 television.

This is the kind of language I thought one only read in History books but here we are and it is not being said behind closed doors but on television to the hearing of all of us.

He then announced the recall of French ambassadors to Canberra and Washington. Such a diplomatic rupture has never occurred between France and Australia and certainly not between France and the US.

The recalled French Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, on his way to the airport, said Australia’s decision had been “a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership, because it wasn’t a contract, it was a partnership that was supposed to be based on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity. We thought we were mates”.

“I would like to run into a time machine, if possible, and be in a situation where we don’t end up in such an incredible, clumsy, inadequate, unAustralian situation,” the ambassador said.

The Foreign Minister was asked what went into the decision not to recall the French Ambassador to London when they were angry with all three countries, Australia, the USA and UK.

If you thought Monsieur Le Drian would have run out of language that would cut you to the bone, you would be very mistaken.

“We have recalled our ambassadors to Canberra and Washington to re-evaluate the situation,” the Foreign Minister said, adding that “With Britain, there is no need. We know their constant opportunism. So, there is no need to bring our ambassador back to explain.”

And just in case that is not hurtful enough, he added more spice: “Britain in this whole thing is a bit like the third wheel.” Ouch!

So, it isn’t only a question of Britain’s “constant opportunism” or the “perfidy of Albion”, (where Albion is another term for Britain), the French Foreign Minister would want us to believe that Britain is unimportant and inconsequential in the matter.

[A third wheel is someone who is unnecessary to a group and is tagging along. Usually, as in this case, the group usually consists of a couple, Australia and the US and the third, UK, superfluous person.]

It is probably worth pointing out that Monsieur Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, was the man behind the original 2016 deal with Australia and this might explain his position and language: “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision. I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies. It’s really a stab in the back.”

The Australians have tried to keep their heads down and hope it all blows over. They are letting it be known that the abrogation of the contract shouldn’t have been a surprise to the French.

The Australian Prime Minister Morrison said: "I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns and we made it very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest," He said he understood France's disappointment, but added: "I don't regret the decision to put Australia's national interest first. Never will."

The Australian Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, insisted Canberra had been "upfront, open and honest" with Paris about its concerns over the deal.

Diplomatic lessons

Apart from having learnt some choice and colourful language that I might try and use in the future, I have certainly learnt some diplomatic lessons as well.

Lesson number one: There is no sentiment in geostrategy

Lesson number two: When it comes to the crunch, nations only do what they see as being in their interest. The Australians acted with steely disregard for French concerns.

I don’t know where this bit of information comes in but it must be important: Apparently, every four years, the Chinese build as many ships as there are in the entire French fleet.

Probably that might explain why the Australians chose the USA to build their submarines, they preferred to be close to a superpower, not a pretender.

Keeping up with the French reading of the British role in the Aukus affair, I might end with an old quote: “the position of the United Kingdom is as usual so nuanced that it's difficult to see where they are on the spectrum.”