After the submarine affair, France affected but not sunk


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Time for a round of applause, he believed in it. This September 25, 2018, at the platform of the United Nations, Emmanuel Macron has just harangued the heads of state for forty minutes, praising a “possible third way” on the international scene, “more difficult, more demanding”. The French president spends just hours after his American counterpart at the time, Donald Trump, whose aggressive speech only caused sarcasm and misunderstanding in the assembly.

That day, France offered an alternative to American threats and the rise of Chinese power. The ovation lives up to the promise. Three years later, the Australian submarine affair buried the momentum of Paris for good, now alone on its “third way” …

A climate of mistrust between Paris and the rest of the world

In this month of September 2021, France finds itself let go by Australia, with whom it had signed the “contract of the century” for 12 conventional submarines, betrayed by the United Kingdom and the United States, which negotiated a new partnership behind its back, and supported lip service by its closest European allies.

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As at the time when, in 1966, General de Gaulle had, in a very little diplomatic way, left the integrated command of NATO, a climate of incomprehension and mistrust settled between France and its best Anglo-American allies. Saxons. And, once again, Paris is on the defensive.

“France did not realize that it was no longer a world power and had to rely on the European Union, underlines David O’Sullivan, former secretary general of the European Commission. In this case, the States -Unis considered that they could keep the French away. ” Of course, France still weighs in the concert of nations thanks to its deterrent force, its seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its diplomacy, its defense industry and its capacity for military projection in the Sahel. But we have to face the facts: his leadership is no longer really up to what the Elysee would like to believe.

French affair or European humiliation?

Moreover, to the humiliation inflicted on Paris was added a long loneliness lasting five days. While France enters into a rage and recalls its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, the Europeans sink into a deafening silence. “Some member states consider this to be a simple French commercial affair,” continues David O’Sullivan. Finally, on the eve of the opening of the UN General Assembly on September 20, European officials rose to the rostrum to denounce “the unacceptable treatment” of France and “demand accountability” from the allies, including including Americans. “We tried to explain that it was a European problem, and not a simple French disappointment linked to a loss of contract, says Clément Beaune, Secretary of State for European Affairs, to L’Express. Beyond this concrete case, it is a further sign that the United States is moving away from the Europeans. ”

In the new cold war between China and the United States, Europe is looking for its place. After having designated Beijing as “a systemic adversary”, the European Commission concluded, under French impetus, a trade agreement with it last December, less than two months after the election of Joe Biden … “The States- The United took this signature very badly as their new administration was about to be set up, underlines Philippe Le Corre, associate researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Since then, the Biden government has sought to strengthen its ‘real alliances’, in particular military, along with the other ‘Five Eyes’, Australia, UK, New Zealand and Canada. In the current US classification, France and Germany are secondary allies. ”

Although this trade agreement with China has still not been ratified by the European Parliament – and it probably never will be – the White House has decided to make the Old Continent pay. “Originally, the submarine affair was clearly French, but the United States unveiled this new alliance in the Indo-Pacific the day before the announcement of the European strategy in the area, recalls Ricardo Borges de Castro. , Deputy Director of the European Policy Center. The Americans give the impression that Europe does not matter, and thus shine the spotlight on its weaknesses, but also on its ambiguities vis-à-vis China. ”

In this context, the need for Europeans to “take charge of their own destiny”, in the words of Angela Merkel in 2017, becomes almost existential. In the Brussels Sabir, we speak rather of acquiring a “strategic autonomy” – that is to say of acquiring the means to ensure its defense without the help of Uncle Sam. Adopted by Brussels in 2016, this ambition has gradually been extended to other areas, such as energy and digital policies. In short, a catch-all concept which, from one end of Europe to the other, is not always well understood. “Nobody really manages to define it, opines Paul Maurice, researcher at the Study Committee on Franco-German Relations. And when France, in 2017, made it its great ambition, some member states wondered if it was not, above all, a hexagonal project … ”

“European Army”, the provocation of Emmanuel Macron

The following year, doubt turns into worry. “To titillate Donald Trump, during the celebrations of the centenary of the armistice of 1918, the French president evoked the idea of ​​a European army, says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for strategic research. In central Europe, the phrase was immediately interpreted as a French desire to drive the Americans out of the Old Continent. ” Unacceptable for most member states, which depend on Washington for their defense. “In the East, all ask the same question, points out Ricardo Borges de Castro: who will defend them if they are attacked [par la Russie] ?”

In Paris, there was never any question of taking the place of the Americans or of marginalizing NATO – even when Emmanuel Macron diagnosed him as “brain dead” at the end of 2019. The “third way” advocated by France consists of rather to give oneself the means to defend oneself, even to project oneself in third countries, such as in the Sahel. “Affirming that Europe must strengthen its coordination and intervention capacities does not constitute an attack against NATO, decrypts Sylvie Bermann, former French ambassador to Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, the Americans, who do not until now did not adhere to this idea of ​​strategic autonomy, have just shifted their position. ” In his press release on “reconciliation” with his European allies, on September 22, Joe Biden thus considers “it necessary for European defense to be stronger and more efficient. […] by completing the role of NATO. “” This is the first time that Washington has made these remarks, insists the diplomat. It’s not nothing.”

Basically, Europeans should perhaps handle concepts less and act more. “When we speak of European defense to the Baltic countries, they oppose us an end of inadmissibility; however, they send troops to the Sahel to fight at our side, comments Clément Beaune. This paradox should enlighten us on the way forward. Rather than dividing ourselves on these concepts of strategic autonomy and European defense, let’s make concrete progress, and then see what name we give them. ”

Struggling to rally their European partners, with the possible exception of Italy, Greece and Spain, the French know one thing: they will not go far without the Germans. It will of course all depend on the future chancellor, but above all on their collective will to take on their role. “Berlin has realized that it cannot turn away from defense issues,” the Quai d’Orsay is believed to be. “Germany must no longer remain in the shadows as it has for ten years,” said Hatim Shehata, a researcher at the German Institute for Foreign Policy (DGAP).

Europe in search of its Strategic Compass

To build a common defense project, Paris and its European partners will soon be able to count on a Strategic Compass, a legal instrument aimed at pooling their resources and better understanding the threats of tomorrow. A draft of this plan will be unveiled in November, before it is adopted in February 2022 during the French presidency of the EU. “This project will help the Twenty-Seven to reflect on their freedom and their ability to act in common, considers Ricardo Borges de Castro. It is a question of sharing not only military, but above all technological, economic and industrial.”

Long-term work, with 2030 for the horizon. “Europeans are doing things in the right order,” points out Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They first assess their needs, then they decide on the best way to cooperate. achieving this autonomy will require continuing to work closely with the United States. ”

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Until one day, perhaps, Washington and its Anglo-Saxon allies can no longer paraphrase Stalin and ask, as “the little father of the peoples” did about the Vatican: “Europe, how many divisions? ”


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