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Reviews |  The roots of French pique


It’s no surprise that France is furious at losing a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Australia, especially since it believes it has been taken aback as Canberra, Washington and London have secretly worked to get a different deal for themselves.

But recalling ambassadors, as France has done from Washington and Canberra, a step just before severing relations, is not normal behavior among the allies, however annoyed they may be. The lost sale of a dozen submarines is painful, but not fatal for the French arms industry, especially since the hulls and engines had to be built in Australia and electronics and weaponry had to come from Lockheed Martin, an American company. And, as the Australians argue, France should have seen it coming: the diesel-powered submarines offered by France were no longer what it took to cope with a rising China.

What really made the French see red is something else. He was ruthlessly sidelined by the United States and its English-speaking allies – “the Anglo-Saxons,” as General Charles de Gaulle somewhat disparagingly called them – and excluded from a role in what was to come. as the central geopolitical center. action for decades to come.

The imperious general, whose place in French history and national identity is reflected in the countless streets, boulevards and squares bearing his name, left a legacy far behind the fury sparked by the affair of the submarines, according to Serge Berstein, a renowned historian. of the de Gaulle era. The common thread, he said, lies in de Gaulle’s conviction that France, even if it is not a superpower, “retains an important international role because of its presence in all parts of the globe” . In Asia, this includes a long colonial history and the control of several islands of the Pacifi “The Anglo-Saxons have never really treated us as true allies”, explained at one time de Gaulle. Affirming France’s greatness and global role against the “Anglo-Saxons” meant withdrawing from NATO’s military command structure in 1963 and expelling allied forces from France while remaining in the alliance. This meant twice vetoing Britain’s membership of the forerunner of the European Union, the European Economic Community.

And that meant thumbing his nose at the “Anglo-Saxons” on several occasions, such as exclaiming “Vive le Québec libre!” during a state visit to Canada, his visit was cut short; or assault the American intervention in Vietnam in a famous speech of 1966 (There is “no chance that the peoples of Asia will submit to the law of foreigners from other shores of the Pacific, whatever their intentions , however powerful its weapons “); or by insisting that France develop its own nuclear” strike force “.

The “Anglo-Saxons” had their own doubts about de Gaulle. He was not invited to join Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill at the Yalta conference, and Roosevelt refused for a time to recognize him as the leader of a liberated France.

Times have changed, but frictions have continued to surface from time to time – think of “freedom fries” after France refused to support a US invasion of Iraq in 2003. More recently, Donald Trump has actually confirmed many stereotypes of France about American ugly. Mr. Trump initially displayed some complicity with President Emmanuel Macron, but this collapsed in the face of Mr. Trump’s displays of contempt for Europe and the NATO alliance, leading Mr. Macron to question America’s commitment to Europe and to declare: “What we are currently experiencing is NATO brain death.

In the current feud, invoking Mr. Trump was about the most scathing insult the French could do, which was exactly what Foreign Secretary Jean-Yves Le Drian intended to say: “This A brutal, one-sided and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do.

For Britain, with which France has fought on various economic fronts since the British left the European Union, the French reserved a special reprimand – while recalling the ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, they left their ambassador to London in place. It was a gesture, French media explained, intended to show that France only viewed Britain as a sidekick of Washington, barely worthy of attention.

Yet Mr. Macron is not General de Gaulle. The French president knows the limits of French power and the ways of realpolitik, and he does not risk going further in the quarrel. Mr. Biden, too, will look for ways to catch up with France, and the world will continue to spin. Despite all the recurring rhetoric aimed at making Europe more militarily independent from the United States, there is little chance that a major change will occur in the near future.

But that doesn’t mean that the French fury isn’t real, or justified. Being faced with a fait accompli by three close allies is something no country would swallow. To claim that the “pivot” to Asia somehow justifies the humiliation of America’s oldest ally sounds like a lame excuse for arrogance and shoddy diplomacy.

The “freedom fries” may have sounded funny at the time, but it should be remembered that France was probably right to oppose the invasion of Iraq, and, before that, that of Gaulle was right to warn America against a confusion in Indochina. The best allies are not necessarily those marching behind you, and an America going through its own identity crisis must be careful not to alienate its friends.


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