return to the “ambitious but naive” Franco-Australian relationship



Acting Australian Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.


© WILLIAM WEST / AFP
Acting Australian Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

There was a time when Napoleon considered invading Australia, which was home to a British penal colony known as New Holland. It is here that the rivalry between France and Great Britain in the region begins, it is said. The said invasion never took place, and it was not until 1914 that the destinies of the French and Australians intersected. “Tens of thousands of Australians died on French soil or died to protect French territory […] during the First World War and the Second», Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce recalled. A way for him to ensure, despite the indignation aroused by breaking the “contract of the century” on the twelve submarines, that “Australia does not need to prove its attachment, its friendship and its will to ensure the freedom and equality of France”. But before these events, what about the Franco-Australian relationship?

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Neighborhood relations

“The Great War is the bedrock of the Australian national narrative. This is the essence of their commemorations and their national construction, which engendered a great Francophilia in the 20th century ”, explains Romain Fathi, researcher and historian at Sciences Po and the University of Flinders, Australia. Before qualifying: “But relations between the two countries remained relatively modest for a hundred years». According to Céline Pajon, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) in Central Asia, “Neighborhood”, because of the proximity of France to New Caledonia. “These relations are based on important concrete interests in the South Pacific”, she continues. The two countries are part of the FRANZ agreements, which coordinate civil and military aid in the event of natural disasters, and of the QUAD, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group (QUAD), which brings together Australia, the United States, New Zealand. Zealand and France, to ensure the security of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the Pacific Ocean. Economically, however, distance does its work. Australia is only France’s 31st customer and 56th import supplier, although Alstom recently announced a € 300 million contract to supply trains to the city of Melbourne.

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In fact, it is the submarine contract that has helped bring the two countries together considerably over the past five years. In 2014, François Hollande was the first French president of the Fifth Republic to visit Australia. A visit opened with a vibrant speech in tribute to the Hairy Australians, the famous «diggers». The beginning of a diplomatic-cultural romance: “In the wake of the submarines, a whole ecosystem of diplomatic, economic and cultural exchanges was born. The French in Australia were the country’s cherished children», Affirms Romain Mathus, who teaches on site. New companies, such as Veolia and Technicolor, are establishing themselves there. The state of South Australia is considering a time to open a trade office in Paris to increase exports to Europe. This same State concluded a partnership with the Brittany region in 2017, which must endorse technological cooperation. “It was not only 56 billion euros: the contract had initiated a rapprochement of the two countries on all levels, continues Céline Pajon. In the spring, France and Australia both took part in ambitious military exercises in the Indian Ocean. ”

Anglo-Saxon tradition

What to reconnect with the Francophilia of yesteryear? This would be forgetting Australia’s long Anglo-Saxon tradition, according to Romain Fathi. “While the two countries have come together over the past two years, we must not forget the historical proximity between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.” In 1942, after John Curtin’s call, 1.5 million GI’s landed on Australian territory. “They have greatly participated in the Americanization of the territory. Australians see themselves above all as Anglo-Saxons and are used to being under American protection, Romain Fathi analysis. By comparison, Franco-Australian relations were ambitious, but naïve. ”

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