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Is Macron Dreaming of Aukus Becoming FrAUKUS?

When silhouetted against the symbolism – as French media proudly insist – of King Charles choosing France for his first state visit at month’s end, this weekend is very much an Anglo-French affair. On Friday, Rishi Sunak and seven ministers visited Paris – a first for five frosty years – for a Franco-British summit with president Macron and relevant ministers on everything from energy policy, immigration, defence and security to Ukraine and the Asia-Pacific. Saturday saw France slaughter England at rugby in the worst ever defeat at Twickenham. More awkwardly for France and Macron, this is also the weekend of further revelations about next stages in the Aukus deal. 

The Aukus security pact for the Indo-Pacific between Australia, the UK and US was announced in September 2021 after Canberra cancelled ‘the contract of the century’ with France to supply diesel-powered submarines and up-graded to UK or US built nuclear-powered ones. Other than the financial loss (€56 billion; £50 billion), it was a heavy blow to French pride and prestige. Portrayed as an allied stab-in-the-back, France’s ambassadors to Canberra and Washington were recalled, though pointedly not from the United Kingdom, dismissed as merely the ‘spare wheel’. 

If Macron were to adopt a more positive stance to Aukus, France could join the pact in some capacity in a restyled Fraukus

President Macron continued to insist over a year later that the nuclear subs would never materialise and that the original French deal was still on the table. Meanwhile, in May 2022, then prime minister Boris Johnson lampooned criticism of his deal as ‘raucous squawkus from the anti-Aukus caucus’. That France still bears the Aukus scars was clear from this weekend’s Le Figaro’s headline: ‘After the Aukus betrayal, the Ukraine war is bringing France and the UK closer together’.

On Monday, Sunak will be in San Diego at a trilateral summit alongside president Biden and Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese to unveil the next stage of Aukus. The ‘spare wheel’ – to borrow former the French defence minister’s jibe – will design Australia’s eight first generation nuclear-powered (not nuclear armed) submarines, modified versions of Britain’s Astute-class hunter-killer vessel. Though built in Adelaide – as would have been the French diesel submarines – British firms will be heavily involved until the 2040 launch date. In between retiring Australia’s present Collins class boats and their nuclear replacement, Canberra will purchase three American Virginia-class nuclear submarines.

If Macron were to adopt a more positive stance to Aukus, France could join the pact in some capacity in a restyled Fraukus. President Biden tactfully telephoned Macron last week about Monday’s deal. Given that since 2017 France too has strategically tilted towards the Indo-Pacific, it makes sense for Paris to be included. After all, France can mount more of a claim than Britain to being an Indo-Pacific stakeholder given local French overseas territories such as New Caledonia and over a million citizens regionally.  

Furthermore, Aukus cooperates in many of the areas covered by the Franco-British 2010 Lancaster House agreements: cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic missiles. Except in two crucial areas. First, the Aukus partnership is between the three major ‘Five Eyes’ ultra-secret intelligence sharing partners, of which France is not a member, and unlikely ever to become one.

Second, Australian nuclear submarine construction of necessity requires nuclear technology sharing. This is tightly restricted by the 1946 US Atomic Energy Act. The only exception has been with Britain in the 1958 UK-USA Mutual Defence Agreement. During the Cold War, France regularly requested American help in developing its nuclear bomb and was officially rejected (though top secret assistance to the French nuclear programme was granted from 1969 to 1975). To accommodate the new Aukus deal on 22 November 2021, Australia, the UK and US signed the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement permitting nuclear technology transfer to Canberra, which became operational on 8 February 2022.

There would, however, be an option for France to figure in an outer circle of Aukus members akin to Macron’s European Political Community. Discussed at Friday’s summit, the EPC brings in non-EU members, such as the UK, to a Europe-wide forum. France could lead other regional players in that circle whose strategic interests match Aukus, such as Japan or South Korea.

Taking only the period for which the two nations have been confirmed friends after the 1904 Entente Cordiale, Franco-British relations always have been – and always will be – subject to national mood swings. But as French and British strategic defence reviews reveal over the last decade or so, when either country’s ‘vital interests’ are threatened the other is committed to come to the aid of the other, whatever the next Brexit or Aukus.  

Source: The Spectator