It’s not just about what was done but the manner in which it was done. Could we not have seen it coming? Political commentary over the scrapped submarine deal with France has pointed to its significance for France’s regional ambitions, particularly in light of the ongoing process of decolonisation taking place in New Caledonia.
On social media memes from Monty Python’s Holy Grail are coming in handy.
People are having fun joking about how over the top the French have been, scorned like a jilted lover (recalling their ambassadors! Sacre bleu!). Stereotypes about the French as dramatic and easily excitable certainly fly off the tongue when we hear them talking about their hurt feelings, about being betrayed and stabbed in the back, particularly in a diplomatic context. Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, for his part admired the French ‘culture of feeling’ which he compared with the emotionally stifled ‘Anglo-Saxons’. And this was in the nineteenth century, so it’s not like we didn’t know that the French were sensitive.
Being kept in the dark until a minute to midnight about the dawn of a new Anglosphere in which they, and their submarines, are only an afterthought was bound to hurt. For Australia to be surprised that the French recalled their ambassador over the scrapped deal, writes Michelle Grattan, suggests ‘it has no grasp of the proprieties of international diplomacy’. It also has no grasp, it seems, of history.
British visitors to France throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often noted the effusiveness of the French, they were amused and at times shocked by it. William Thackeray’s French character in The Newcomes (1854 and 1855), Paul de Florac, constantly demonstrates his affection and love for his friends, he takes them in his arms, shakes their hands, and tells them how happy he is to see them, with tears in his eyes. If the French feel love keenly, they feel pain just as much, and are not afraid to show it.
The recalled French ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thebault, has made it clear the French do not question Australia’s sovereign decision regarding its security, but are shocked at the way it was handled: ‘where is the sincerity, where is the normal behaviour between two countries which have so much in common throughout history and were planning to do so much in the future?’
What we have also known for centuries is that France is a country characterised by pride and ambition. The English lawyer and economist Nassau Senior noted in 1840, in reference to a speech by Tocqueville in the Chamber of Deputies, that no matter the reality on the ground in France, the country acted for ‘the opinions of the world around her’ and sought ‘not happiness, but power’. We might take political and social commentaries by the British on the French with a cautious pinch of salt, but again, it’s not like we didn’t know.
France’s pride and ambition have generated particular anxieties in French society about the place of France in the world at least since Napoleonic times. The idea of national decline has been a recurring trope in contemporary political and social discussions, just as it was in the nineteenth century. And despite, or perhaps because of, military defeats and the brutal loss of its empire (a history it is yet to truly reckon with), pride and ambition continue to define France’s approach to the rest of the world.
Both ideas find a particular echo in Charles de Gaulle’s vision of French grandeur. De Gaulle’s term (1958-1969) is forever associated with the ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ of post-war reconstruction, during which time the economy boomed, France moved on from Nazi occupation, developed its sovereign nuclear arsenal and declared itself to be a key player in the international arena (even if the reality was not quite as glorious as de Gaulle claimed). Every president since the General has tried to emulate his messianic persona, his mobilisation of a sense of history and of a great destiny for France in the world. Emmanuel Macron’s classical allusion to his ‘Jupiterian’ presidency is only the latest iteration.
Looking at popular reactions in France at the scrapping of the submarine deal suggests that a sense of betrayal is widely shared. Australia’s actions have really put a finger where it hurts. As historian Emile Chabal writes in his book France, ‘there is a lingering sense that France could be so much more. Such a belief is not entirely irrational … If the French feel today that their country is in decline, it is because they are still struggling to escape from the shadow of Gaullist grandeur’.
France sees itself as a middle power with a global reach. For years it has seen its future as wedded to the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’ region where it wants to be a major player. Cancelling the submarine deal has certainly thwarted France’s ambitions, but the manner in which it was done has hurt its pride. If there’s another ready common stereotype about the French is that as far as jilted lovers go, they can hold a grudge. And unlike Australia, France has a deep sense of history.
Dr Alexis Bergantz is a lecturer in Global and Language Studies at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. His book French Connection: Australia’s Cosmopolitan Ambitions is out with NewSouth.