France sunk by Royal Navy again after paying €100m for UK warships

Two centuries after the Battle of Trafalgar, the French government took the first of a series of decisions that led accidentally to its taxpayers subsidising two British aircraft carriers

Paris

The Emperor Napoleon would be spinning in his tomb. So might be Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, the man who lost the Battle of Trafalgar.

In 2005, precisely two centuries after the battle, the French government took the first of a series of decisions that led accidentally to the French taxpayer subsidising two giant warships for the Royal Navy.

The French government’s public spending watchdog protested this week that a defence co-operation agreement signed by Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair in 2006 led to “a French contribution pure and simple to the financing of [two] British aircraft carriers in their early development phase”.

The amount of the accidental cross-Channel subsidy to HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, now under construction on the Firth of Forth, is estimated as at least €100m (£82m) and possibly more than double that. The loss was buried at sea in the small print of the 2013 French defence estimates but dredged from its watery grave by the Cour des comptes, or court of auditors, in its annual report this week.

The saga began in 2005, two centuries after the British, under Nelson, defeated the French and Spanish, under Villeneuve, off Cape Trafalgar. President Chirac’s government decided to co-operate with Britain in building a new generation of aircraft carriers. France was to build one ship, to take the operational pressure off its solitary, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. The British were to build two vessels.

It was clear from the beginning, as the court of auditors points out, that the two countries were sailing in diverging directions. Britain wanted conventionally powered ships for vertical-take-off aircraft. France wanted a nuclear-powered ship which would possess a long deck and catapult equipment for take-off and landing by conventional warplanes.

Nonetheless, the French government signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Britain in 2006. France handed over €102m for the right to consult “off the shelf” the development work already undertaken by Britain. It contributed another €112m over the next two years for further studies. In 2008, under President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris dropped its plans for the new aircraft carrier which would have cost around €3bn.

“Between 2006 and 2007, France spent €214 m – €102m handed over to London as an entry ticket and €112m in industrial contracts – whose results are now useless to us,” said the Cour des comptes.

Despite this experience, France and Britain are pushing ahead with ambitious plans for defence co-operation in other areas. David Cameron and President François Hollande signed another memorandum last month to develop a Franco-British pilotless fighter plane.

In the circumstances, the least the Government could do is rename the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. When they become fully operational in 2020, at an estimated cost of £6bn, they will be the largest, most expensive ships ever owned by the Royal Navy. They would have been even more expensive without a French subsidy.

How about the HMS Napoleon Bonaparte and the HMS Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve?

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