This year marks the 80th anniversary of Australia’s war with France. It is largely forgotten, but the facts are simply these. Vichy France, under the leadership of Marshal Petain, was collaborationist in nature and it remained in control of Syria and Lebanon in the Middle East. In this strategically important position, its co-operation with the Axis increased the threat to Allied positions in the Middle East, from the Suez Canal to Iraq.
In June-July of 1941, British strategists decided to deal with this threat and a combined force of British, Indian and Free French troops was assigned the task. But the greatest share of the fighting was borne by two brigades of the 7th Australian division, including Sir Roden Cutler, who won a Victoria Cross for bravery in an action, which saw him gravely wounded in fighting in Syria. About 400 other Australians died in the fighting, which, despite early optimistic British assessments, witnessed determined French resistance, including by its colonial troops.
Though the battle was won, the question that arises is how long did it take Australia to recover its pre-war friendly relationship with Paris? The answer is hardly any time at all as democratic France revived to begin building the Common Market.
This surely begs the question of whether or not Australia should begin to rebuild a bridge to Paris in the aftermath of the diplomatic contretemps over AUKUS and the replacement of French conventional submarines with Anglo/American nuclear boats. (Full disclosure: I serve as the deputy chair of Thales Australia, which is a significant shareholder in the Naval Group, which was originally commissioned to build Australia’s new submarines. I also serve on the board of the European Australian Business Council.)
Rebuilding the relationship with France is very much in the Australian national interest.
Three issues immediately arise with crystal clarity. France is a critically important member of the EU, especially in the light of Brexit and Angela Merkel’s retirement. A free-trade agreement with Europe is very much in the interests of both parties. This is the record of trade liberalisation internationally from the latter part of the 20th century.
Precisely the same point can be made about NATO, where the French contribution is serious and sustained. Continuing animosity between Canberra and Paris serves no purpose other than to make the strategic ambitions of The Dictators more readily achieved.
For leave us be in no doubt that at this point in terms of the geostrategic shifts that are occurring, whether it be in the Indo-Pacific or in Europe, The Dictators are winning. They act with impunity and serve only their own interests in terms of maintaining monopolies on power and further enriching their elites.
Any schism in the Western system of democratic partnerships is only there to be exploited by those states best described as malicious and malign.
Finally, France is an Indo-Pacific power in its own right and one which is active.
Japanese sources of serious credibility maintain that of recent times China sent certain of its nuclear boats into the Sea of Okhotsk. This body of water is normally regarded as the preserve of Russian nuclear submarines. The French Navy was on station observing.
So as with the level of real co-operation between the Five Eyes intelligence grouping and France, there is every reason for Australia to seek to reconstruct a strategic direction in which France’s interests and our own are again in alignment.
But this requires Australia to take initiatives. The level of animosity in Paris about the Australia submarine decision has not diminished and has become more widespread within the French general public. This is simply because the original Australian decision to purchase 12 French conventional submarines was very big news throughout the country. The decision not to proceed with the contract has become even bigger news. So while it is not necessary for Australia to take the knee, it is necessary for Australia to make overtures. In the short term this will be difficult given that official contacts between France and Australia are severely limited. But it can be done and needs to be done.
Consider the alternative for just a moment. Does anyone suggest Mathias Cormann would be Secretary-General of the OECD over French opposition?
The complicating factor is, of course, that there will be an Australian general election in March and a French presidential election in April. France is more than happy to wait to see if the Morrison government survives, but Australian interests are best served if we act promptly and effectively now. Populism needs to give way.
This is made more pressing because of the danger of the AUKUS decision becoming a part of the electoral contest in either Australia or France, or both. This can only set relations back further. There are any number of projects where Australian and French co-operation can gradually restore an element of trust. Projects are to be found in the South Pacific in particular, where both our interests and our capacities coincide. The same is true everywhere in just about every field of endeavour, from the arts and environment to science and technology.
But on the broader diplomatic canvas, Canberra should be bold and embrace major change.
Britain has suggested that it wishes to become a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is something which Australia can readily support, but we need also to make it clear that we would support French interest in this regard. This would involve eventually the EU as a whole, but few geopolitical shifts would have greater impact in terms of trade and investment, not to mention the strategic lattice work, than the EU and the CPTPP becoming a co-operative economic zone. France may reject the offer, but this is of less consequence than the alternative of doing nothing.
The great French prime minister Georges Clemenceau addressed Australian troops in July 1918, after the Battle of Hamel. He told them that they had astonished the world. Australian aspirations and ambition need to be of similar stuff again.