‘Get a grip’: Boris Johnson taken aback by French vitriol over Aukus submarine row

Mr Johnson insisted that the Aukus pact had never been intended to “crowd out” the French

Andrew Woodcock
in Washington
Wednesday 22 September 2021 22:18 BST
Boris Johnson vows to stand 'shoulder-to-shoulder’ with US in fight for democracy

Boris Johnson has told Emmanuel Macron to “get a grip” in the row over Britain’s new defence partnership with the US and Australia, telling reporters he was “taken aback” by the vitriolic reaction from Paris.

US president Joe Biden sought to soothe French anger today with a phone call in which he assured Macron that France would get better consultation on future initiatives.

But Mr Johnson insisted that the Aukus pact had never been intended to “crowd out” the French, and said that he and Biden want the partnership to form part of a wider democratic counterweight to Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

In their White House meeting on Tuesday, the pair discussed how to build on the new arrangement to bring like-minded nations on board with technological and political initiatives to “recapture the Western lead” in what is increasingly becoming a theatre of contest between different ideologies.

Mollified by the Biden call, Mr Macron agreed to send his ambassador back to Washington, days after withdrawing him for the first time in US history in what was a remarkable expression of hostility between such close allies.

But Mr Johnson risked restarting the row by telling the French president to “donnez-moi un break” after a week of invective directed at the Anglophone trio from Paris, which characterised the new trilateral partnership as a “stab in the back”.

Biden and Johnson expressed astonishment in their Oval Office chat at the furious tone of the French response, which saw ministers accuse Australia of “betrayal” and brand the UK a “vassal” of Washington.

Both were assured by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison that he had warned Paris in advance of his decision to ditch a €56bn (£48bn) deal for French diesel-electric submarines, in favour of nuclear-powered vessels from the US which he believes are better suited to Canberra’s needs.

There are suspicions in London that French ire was fuelled by embarrassment at their intelligence and diplomats having failed to pick up on signals of a change of heart in Australia, as well as by considerations of what compensation may be payable.

The loss of the contract is thought to have been particularly keenly felt by foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian because the diesel subs were due to be built in his constituency, supporting large numbers of jobs.

Mr Johnson suggested that Mr Morrison may have left it late to inform Paris of his intentions, comparing the Aussie PM to a lover putting off telling his partner that she is being dumped.

“It’s just one of those things,” said the PM. “There are no easy ways of having these conversations. It’s a very human thing to delay the conversation until the last possible moment. I don’t know if anyone’s been in that situation in their emotional life, but it’s very human to put it off.”

In their Oval Office talks, Johnson and Biden slammed the door shut on further countries joining the Aukus defence pact, with the most obvious candidates ruled out because New Zealand has a no-nukes policy and Canada is not seeking access to the technology.

“Aukus has its own logic,” said Johnson. “This is the right group.”

But the pair spent much of the 90-minute meeting discussing methods of building up democratic influence in the region, talking through the advantages of offering greater involvement for countries like Australia, India and South Korea in the activities of the G7 group of leading economies or establishing a more formal D10 group of democracies.

Mr Johnson said a key factor would be building up technological capability in areas like cyber and artificial intelligence so democratic nations never again find themselves dependent on Chinese hardware as the UK was when it was forced to tear out Huawei 4G telecommunications kit. Other areas for deepening the strategic relationship would include mutual support for open markets and human rights.

The conversation reflected growing conviction that the West must not cede any more ground to China and Russia and should counter the attractions of their authoritarian models to smaller countries seeking powerful mentors.

Speaking after talks with leading Democrat and Republican Congressmen, Mr Johnson said the Aukus concept had been given a universal “thumbs-up”, adding: “What I found on Capitol Hill was they want to populate the agenda with all sorts of other things which matter.

“What we need Is a Western technology on which we can rely and the fact is the Chinese are ahead on some of these things. We want to try and recapture the western lead on some of these things – on cyber, on AI.

“We want to reach out to other partners, this is not an exclusive thing. Joe is keen to look at the formula and the detail on D10, the G7-plus, the other Indo-Pacific democracies,  Japan, India, Australia and try to bring everyone in that way. In that group, you couldn’t do the full sharing of the technology which underpins Aukus.”

Mr Johnson said the row over Australia’s contract for French subs was a matter for Paris and Canberra, but that the UK remained “massively” invested in its relationship with its cross-Channel neighbour. “We love France,” he told reporters.

But in a TV interview earlier in the day, the PM betrayed his irritation at a week of invective from Paris, saying: “I just think it’s time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prenez un grip about this and donnez-moi un break.

“Because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security. It’s three very like-minded allies standing shoulder to shoulder creating a new partnership for the sharing of technology. It’s not exclusive. It’s not trying to shoulder anybody out. It’s not adversarial towards China for instance.”

His foray into Franglais won a scathing response from former ambassador to France and national security adviser Peter Ricketts, who said they were likely to antagonise Paris further.

“Words fail me,” said Lord Ricketts. “How is mocking the French going to help anything?”

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