France-United States: Naval Battle and Diplomatic Crisis

France was to sell the Australian Navy 12 diesel-electric submarines. A contract settled in 2016 and broken on September 15, in favor of American nuclear-powered submersibles. A “shock,” according to the French ambassador in Washington, Philippe Etienne.
The French submarine Améthyste. © Marine Nationale

In response, the Franco-American commemorations of the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes – an episode of the War of Independence that saw the French and English fleets clash in Chesapeake Bay on September 5, 1781, and led a month and a half later to the fall of Yorktown and the surrender of Great Britain – have been “reduced.” A gala to be held at the French embassy this Friday was cancelled.

“Given the circumstances, it would have been artificial to maintain the entire celebrations,” explained a French official in Washington. A wreath-laying ceremony in Annapolis on September 18 was maintained, however. As well as the visit to Baltimore of the French anti-submarine frigate Aquitaine on the 20 and that of the nuclear attack submarine Améthyste, which arrived this Thursday at the Norfolk U.S. Navy base. Ironic at a time when the termination of a 34.5 billion euros naval program – “a stab in the back,” according to French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian – is tearing apart French decision-makers and their American, Australian, and British counterparts?

“The American behavior worries me,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said on France Info radio. “This unilateral and brutal decision is very similar to what Mr. Trump was doing.” At stake, assures the official in Washington, is the presence of France in the Indian Ocean and the western shores of the Pacific. A region called “Indo-Pacific” strategic in the context of Chinese expansionism: 7,000 French troops are permanently stationed there. “It is not possible to underestimate the importance [of this situation] for France.”

Final twist in this diplomatic crisis, Emmanuel Macron ordered on Friday the recall of the French ambassador to Australia and his counterpart in the United States. A decision without precedent in the history of our two nations. “I am recalled to Paris for consultations,” confirmed Philippe Etienne on Twitter. “This follows announcements directly affecting the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.”