Trust is a hard-won thing. Which is why France's leaders raged about "deceit, treachery, treason and back-stabbing" when Australia on Sept. 15 suddenly reneged on
a 90 billion Australian dollars ($65.3 billion) submarine contract with France in favor of nuclear-powered submarines under a new deal with the U.S. and U.K.
So, was it ill-intentioned duplicity on Australia's part, or a ham-fisted yet pragmatic move to enhance Australian defensive capabilities amid spiraling tensions in the Indo-Pacific region? It depends where you sit on the spectrum of Franco-Australian relations, and what you think about, among other things, alliances, mateship and honor, the blood spilled by 50,000 young Australian soldiers on French soil in two world wars, French nuclear tests in the South Pacific, scientific cooperation in the Antarctic, shared social, economic and political values, and the history of the European colonization of Australia.
French connections run far and wide across Australia. Hundreds of French place names dot the long Australian coastline, the calling cards of the sailors and scientists who journeyed from France in the 18th and 19th centuries to explore large parts of Terra Australis. The expeditions of Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux (1792) and Nicolas Baudin (1800-03), for example, added immensely to the world's scientific knowledge of Australia.
Not that I knew much about this broad French connection from my limited exposure at school. Our history texts carried the barest of references to the French explorers, and the closest I got to understanding France was a couple of years of French language study at my Sydney high school in the 1960s.The only other language option was German -- the idea of studying Japanese, Chinese or Indonesian was still years away from mainstream reality.
Still, I did come to know that the Sydney suburb of La Perouse was named after the French explorer, Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse, who sailed into Botany Bay on Jan. 26, 1788. His timing was miserable. After a 30-month journey from France that took in South and North America, Russia, East Asia and the Pacific islands, his two ships arrived just a few days after the British "First Fleet," whose commander, Arthur Phillip, had already decided that there were better prospects for a settlement in a much bigger harbor (Sydney Cove) just north of Botany Bay.
La Perouse, his scientists and crew stayed at Botany Bay for six weeks, before sailing off into the South Pacific in March 1788. They were never seen again by Europeans, setting off a search that reached its conclusion years later when wreckage from one of his ships was found on a reef at Vanikoro, part of what is now the Solomon Islands.
If only La Perouse had beaten the British into Botany Bay in 1788, France may have felt entitled to push a colonial claim -- despite the move 18 years earlier by Capt. James Cook to claim eastern Australia for Britain.
What if a young Napoleon Bonaparte had come ashore with La Perouse? At the age of 15, Napoleon had unsuccessfully applied in 1785 to join the La Perouse expedition. By 1799, Napoleon would be First Consul of France, and by 1804, its first emperor. Would he have pushed La Perouse to be more forceful in claiming part of Australia for France? Neither France nor Britain, of course, had any thought for the rights of the indigenous First Nations people who watched these strange intruders come ashore. Instead, the colonizers rested their claims on the fiction of terra nullius ("nobody's land").
Australia and France signed their submarine deal in 2016, to the chagrin of disappointed contenders including Japan. In 2018, the Sydney-based Lowy Institute asked Australians about their level of trust toward eight other nations, including France (but not including New Zealand, which Australians always identify as their closest friend). France ranked third most trusted with 84%, behind the U.K. (90%) and Japan (87%), and well ahead of the U.S. (55%).
But since Sept. 15, angry comments by French President Emmanuel Macron, his foreign minister and numerous diplomats suggest there is zero chance of that trust being reciprocated.
Aside from French nuclear tests in the South Pacific and the deadly sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985 by French agents, I like just about everything there is to like about France and the French, so the submarine imbroglio is tough to reconcile.
I can only fall back on the Italian diplomat and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote 500 years ago that a prince must realize that a state can have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Perhaps there will be a reconciliation in the future, because France, through its territories in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and Australia both have permanent interests in the Indo-Pacific. But it will not be easy. Macron said as much when he declared after learning of the canceled subs deal that France was an Indo-Pacific power "regardless of any contract, since we have more than 1 million citizens living in the region and [...] more than 8,000 soldiers deployed there."
Geoff Hiscock is an Australia-based writer