The French disconnection: Australia’s dysfunctional diplomacy

Nov 10, 2021
Scott Morrison and Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron accused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying about the submarines deal. (Image: EPA/Yoan Valat)

The alarming deterioration of relations between French leader Emmanuel Macron and Scott Morrison was driven by arrogance and ignorance on the Australian side.

European observers were not surprised by the rapid deterioration of relations between French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The dysfunction in the management of its foreign relations made sure that Australia was.

Macron is not just another politician, either in his own mind or in reality. France is not just another country. These factors were astonishingly not taken into account in shaping a diplomatic strategy to rebuild relations in the difficult post-AUKUS situation.

The nationalist hubris that infects the self-image of Australia’s political class, the insular paradigm that informs the Australian government’s foreign and strategic policymaking, and the institutional dysfunction that hampers the Australian policy establishment all contributed to the surprise that shouldn’t have been.

Surely there was a cable from the Paris embassy with advice on how to handle an engagement with Macron? It must have addressed his personality and his views on the importance of the office he holds and of France. The prestige and respect Macron believes should be accorded to both should have been canvassed.

The Europeans know who Macron is. He became the youngest French president at 39. He created his own party, La République en Marche, and rewrote the rules of French politics. The presidency was the only time he has ever run for public office.

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His ambitions for France and Europe are large, and he has compared himself to the god Jupiter and his mission to that of Joan of Arc. To the French and to Macron, the French presidency is a lofty institution that transcends those of former colonial outposts.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure, Macron is now perhaps the most influential leader in Europe. He has partnered with Merkel to progress pro-European initiatives, including the historic pandemic recovery package, and together they managed transatlantic relations during the Trump years.

He has no doubts about his importance, or of Europe’s potential to be a major geopolitical power. He will influence future relations between Europe and Australia in trade and security.

He has grasped the legacy obligations of the empire for security in francophone Africa, and French departments are scattered across the globe, including in the Pacific. He sees France as a great power with global responsibilities. France is a nuclear power and a founding member of NATO and the EU. He deals as an equal with American, Russian and Chinese presidents.

Macron is acutely aware of France’s past grandeur and history, and that French ties with the US go back two-and-a-half centuries to their shared revolutionary pasts. From the French perspective “Australia is yet to sit at the table of [the] great Concert of Nations with a sovereignty, foreign policy and submarines of its own”.

He lives in the Élysée Palace!

After the AUKUS step had been taken, the reality of Macron and France should have shaped a sophisticated and nuanced diplomatic approach to mending relations. But, alas, no.

It should not have been a surprise that US President Joe Biden desired to repair relations with an important European ally. The Department of Foreign Affairs and our Washington embassy must have briefed the prime minister that Biden would take steps in this direction. America needs France in Europe more than it needs Australia in the Pacific. The political necessities of the situation were apparently lost on the Australian government, which in a self-centred tantrum released a document that unnecessarily embarrassed Biden.

The whole episode must have been viewed with disbelief in Washington.

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Knowing that Morrison would be at the G20 summit in Rome with Macron last month, Defence Minister Peter Dutton adroitly prepared the way by suggesting Macron’s outrage over the cancellation of the $90 billion submarine contract was “faux” anger related primarily to the upcoming French presidential election. In what world did Dutton believe that this constituted sound preparation for discussions in Rome, or that Macron’s briefing package wouldn’t contain the disparaging remarks.

As Morrison and Macron moved on to Glasgow for COP26, acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce belittled Macron’s disappointment at the cancellation of the submarine project, proclaiming “we didn’t deface the Eiffel Tower” and it wasn’t as bad as “cheating on a lover”. Two days later Joyce compared France to a “tin pot nation”; this on the same day Macron’s text to Morrison was leaked. It was a series of events that played out in headlines across the world.

It’s as though these politicians believe that statements they make for domestic consumption don’t leave the country. And if headlines around the world broadcast Australian comments denouncing Macron’s sincerity, politicians should not be surprised that the president of France might take umbrage.

Macron’s now famous “I don’t think, I know” comment was preceded by insulting remarks from the top of the Australian government, and by a pathetic ruse by the prime minister to confect the appearance of a reconciliation with photographer at hand. Macron is not a person one uses as a prop so your personal photographers can get a snap for domestic consumption.

There have been indications that the professional diplomats and policy experts had no hand in preparing a strategy for smoothing over, or at least beginning to rebuild, Australian-French relations at the G20 and COP26, although these high-level meetings presented an excellent opportunity. As a result, the performance of the government resulted in a series of affronts to Macron that will seriously retard reconciliation efforts.

This not about being obsequious or apologetic. Just diplomatic. The submarine decision is a separate issue. Even if mistaken, it should have been made in light of the government’s genuine assessment of Australia’s national security interests.

Post-AUKUS, the rebuilding of the relationship with France, a major power and dominant force in the world’s largest economic bloc, is also crucial. However, with a strategic view that begins and ends with the Australian electoral map, and hyper-sensitive political egos that eclipse national interests, the government has proven incapable of managing the rehabilitation.

The next government must re-establish sound policy and diplomatic processes.

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