Acknowledging the submarine in the room as France ties rekindle

James Riley
Editorial Director

The rehabilitation of the France-Australia bilateral relationship began with the defeat of the Morrison Government in May 2022. It has quietly progressed over the past 11 months through high-level diplomatic contacts and formal ministerial talks.

The relationship ran aground over submarines. The then Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to cancel a contract – worth tens of billions of dollars – with France-based Naval Group to design and build a fleet of diesel-powered submarines was a shock to the relationship, to say the least.

The subsequent AUKUS announcements confirming that the trilateral Australia, US and UK submarine and advanced technologies security pact has been “noted” by France. Awkward.

Paris, 2023.

And despite the apparent warmth of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’ first bilateral meeting with French President Emannuel Macron in Paris in early July last year, and the subsequent Two-Plus-Two ministerial consultations that followed (meetings of the two sides’ Defence and Foreign Ministers), the resetting of the relationship remains in its early stages.

The reality is that the submarine contract with France was the basis on which a range of other bilateral programs were to have been built.

The trust required to collaborate on something as complex as a submarine build is fertile ground on which to build other programs in technology sharing and cooperation. But with the evaporation of the submarine contract went the trust.

There have been significant efforts at rebuilding that trust on both sides. But despite the steady drumbeat of ministerial contacts, we are still at the ground floor of relationship rebuild.

If you’re a glass half-full kind of person, you would call this an opportunity.

I was invited by the French foreign ministry to participate on a tour key government, academic, and defence institutions by Indo-Pacific journalists. This podcast is a short collection of initial notes from that visit to Paris last week.

The tour included two journalists from Japan, two from Korea, one from India and two from Australia. The participants are an indicator of where France sees the strength of friendship in out region.

It is worth noting that there are actually two elephants in the room in relation to French relations in the Indo Pacific: There are submarines and there is China.

Three days in Paris is a short time to understand the motivations and the reality of France in our region.

But it included discussions with senior government officials, with academics and with civil society. The press tour included a look at the famed Paris-Saclay innovation cluster, discussions with the Defence establishment, as well as senior officials of the central government.

France is a player in the Indo Pacific in a way that no other European power is.

This episode of the Commercial Disco is a very short descriptor of a post-Morrison engagement, from nuclear energy to quantum computing, to startups and social media engineering, this discussion talked about how the Australia – France relationship might evolve.

In the coming weeks, InnovationAus will cover specific areas of interest, including an update on the nuclear power generation sector in France, as well as the broader debate about nuclear energy currently ongoing across Europe.

But I also spent time understanding the policies that brought forward the Paris-Saclay innovation district, as well as the Station F startup hub.

And I spent a lot of time asking how Defence budgets can be leveraged to underwrite commercial technology investments, and vice versa. And its fair to say all nations are struggling with this.

I hope you enjoy this edition of the Commercial Disco podcast. There will be more stories from this Indo-Pacific tour of France in the coming days.

James Riley was a guest of the Foreign Ministry of France over four days in Paris as part of an Indo-Pacific delegation of journalists.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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