A vote of confidence is how President Emmanuel Macron described Greece’s purchase of three French frigates on Tuesday. This deal comes on top of 24 Rafale fighter jets previously ordered by Athens, welcome news two weeks after France was publicly humiliated over Australia’s cancellation of the submarine order.
The sale of three frigates to Greece, worth three billion euros, is a pittance compared to the “contract of the century” for twelve submarines with Australia, for 56 billion euros. But the Greek contract allows Macron to claim with his head held high that France is still a military power that the world must reckon with.
Allies stabbed in the back
Until last week, the Quai d’Orsay was still angry at the Anglo-Saxon “betrayal.” Not this decade, French diplomats proclaimed high and low, but the way France was stabbed in the back by its allies: the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
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France was angry, and showed it very openly, sometimes in a childish way. A reception commemorating the Battle of the Chesapeake has been cancelled. The ambassadors were summoned from Washington and Canberra, but certainly not from London, so as not to give the UK the impression that it still plays an important role in the world. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian added that “the UK is a bit of a fifth wheel in this regard”.
Subtle but significant, after France ousted the leader of the Islamic State in the Sahel on September 16, France kept the usual thanksgiving for the “American partner” to a minimum.
The Sahel is one area where France feels it is not getting enough recognition for its role. Just last Friday, a French soldier was killed in a confrontation with jihadists in Mali, the 52nd since the French military operation Barkhane began in 2013.
It was no coincidence, then, that President Joe Biden, after his September 22 phone interview with Macron, pledged to intensify US support for counterterrorism operations in the Sahel.
Little by little the folds are flattened. Macron also used the press conference on the sale to Greece to announce that the French ambassador to Washington, Philippe Etienne, would return to his post on Wednesday. Etienne was tasked by Macron with opening discussions on “re-engagement” between the two countries. A new conversation between Macron and Biden will follow in mid-October.
It is also in talks with London again, albeit reluctantly. After speaking with Macron last Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to strengthen ties with France on climate, counter-terrorism and the Indo-Pacific region. The Elysee responded moderately that it was awaiting specific proposals from London. Johnson’s previous statements in untranslatable French (“Understand this and give me a break”) has not yet been fully digested in Paris.
For France, two weeks of self-torture have passed (more than usual), with the questioning whether French greatness is now certainly a thing of the past. 1 article in the scientist I even took advantage of the submarine crisis to complain about the decline in French scientific research. “Australia is not only not buying our submarines, but their researchers are on the verge of surpassing our submarine in productivity.”
Defensive journalist Jean-Dominique Merchette compares to the Queen in Snow White at L’Opinion. Merchette wrote: “France likes to look in the mirror of her foreign policy to find out not whether she is the most beautiful, but whether she is still a great power, and the image she has recently returned to makes her pale with anger.” To make matters worse, “our anger at our European neighbors provokes, at best, a form of amusing indifference.”
In another lecture, France profited from Australia’s disaster. You have cleverly turned the lost order into a European cause.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. A few days later, Germany also showed open understanding of the French disappointment.
France was already determined to enlist with renewed momentum for a stronger European security policy after the chaotic retreat of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan. France believes that the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom have also bypassed the European Union on the sidelines of the submarine deal with their new strategic alliance in the Indo-Pacific, is an additional argument for this.
On Tuesday, Macron said Americans were “great historical allies” and “will remain so.”
“But we have had to see that for a little over 10 years now, the United States has become very self-centered and has strategic interests centered around China and the Indo-Pacific. That is their right. We Europeans must play our part in protecting ourselves.”
France, which will take over the interim presidency of the European Union from January 1, wants to hold a summit in the spring on more European independence. What exactly this should look like is far from clear and has been the subject of debate for years.
Journalist Merchet gives advice to Macron in this regard. “If France wants to look in the mirror again without bitterness, it must be more modest: build alliances, lead from the center, find a common denominator, without pushing itself forward.”
In collaboration with Michelle Kerris
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of September 29, 2021
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