Submarines & Imperialism

English original of a French translation, published in the December 2021 issue of Le Monde Libertaire. Based on correspondence between the author and French anarcho-syndicalist René Berthier.

Daniel Rashid:

I was curious, has there been much coverage of the AUKUS treaty in France and the diplomatic reaction to it? In Australia the coverage makes it seem like France has gone into a panic over the nuclear submarine deal – the ambassador has been withdrawn from Canberra back to France for the first time ever, I think, and Macron is now trying to push the EU army idea again.
Does the French population care much or is it just the political class getting mad?

René Berthier:

There was indeed a lot of media coverage in France about the Australian government’s “betrayal”, a little less now. It is certain that for the media this represents an incredible windfall, which allows them to add to the sauce at will and make money.

However, as far as I could see, the population doesn’t seem to be traumatised and the people around me that I could interview (not all political activists, far from it) remain indifferent. It’s all about money, and if France had won the submarine contract, the population would not have seen much of it, anyway. This seems to me to be the widespread opinion. In short, no one cares. Or, if you prefer, no one gives a f…

Will this affect relations between the French (the people, not the government) and the Australians? As I said, most people don’t care, and besides, Australia is a country that attracts a lot of French people, much to the surprise of the Australians, if I am to believe some French people I know (starting with my daughter) who have spent several months or a year there.

On the whole, it seems to me that the French are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the government of a country and the people. Of course, not all French people are like that, but many are. That’s why they wouldn’t feel offended if a foreigner criticised the policy of a French government whose policy they didn’t approve of.

It reminds me of something Bakunin said: “The people are responsible for their governments, until they overthrow them.”

Besides, I think that most French people have understood that the Australian Prime Minister is only an accessory in this affair and that it is the US administration that is behind it all.

Obviously, there are those for whom indignation, especially anti-American indignation, is second nature, if not a profession. Contrary to what some say, the French are not anti-American. Each time there is some kind of US cultural event in the country, it draws crowds. The anti-Americanism applies to the policies of the US government, but many US citizens don’t seem to understand that.

There must be a referendum on New Caledonian independence. There have already been two, with a majority in favour of maintaining the link with France. The idea that a country that has become a settlement for another people becomes independent (this was precisely the case with Australia and the United States, by the way) is of course a pleasant one. But in the case of New Caledonia (like Australia and the United States) it is not a question of returning the country to the original population.

It is a question of creating an entity that determines its own place in the international balance of power. It seems obvious to me that an independent New Caledonia will not have the capacity to impose itself as independent from the influence of the United States, China or even Australia. And if Caledonians break their ties with France, they will also break the ties with the institutions that the French working class and popular movements have progressively created, particularly in terms of healthcare. For example, in France, if you have cancer, diabetes or some other serious illness, care and surgery are free. Will Caledonians accept a system where they are denied entry to a hospital and care because they cannot pay? Such a situation is impossible in France.

Have we moved away from the submarine case? Not so much, because this crisis has revealed that the fate of the population of the Pacific is hostage to strategic issues that go well beyond them.

I think that to understand what’s going on, you have to remember a sentence, unnoticed in France, pronounced by Joe Biden immediately after his election. I saw and heard him pronounce this sentence on television: “America will lead the world again”. Curiously, this sentence was not translated during the broadcast of the speech.

Everything is in this sentence. In other words, the United States is returning to the normal course of events that were interrupted under Trump’s mandate. They do not see their relations with their “allies” in terms of collaboration but in terms of vassalage. That’s why they hated De Gaulle so much (and he hated them back). For them he was an insufferable arrogant cock. When I was a teenager, I used to go on holiday with relatives in Italy and heared the adults talking about De Gaulle: it was obvious that they regretted that there was no such figure in their own country.

I think the people who define US international policy are very stupid. I’m not even talking about their policy in the Middle East, which is a disaster.

France is a key player in the Pacific, since it has New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Whether we like it or not, it is a nuclear power, which has atomic submarines. From the point of view of what can well continue to be called US imperialism, France could have been associated in some form with the US strategy in the Pacific to stop the Chinese threat, but the Americains are not used to share and to collaborate: they take and order. This is why the US governement was so cross at President Chirac when he refused to engage France in the second Gulf war, because it was obvious to any first-year student in international politics that it was a dead end. We still pay the consequences of the American policy.

But maybe the US strategy in the Pacific is not so much containing China as the perspective of profits from the sale of arms to Australia, as well as in the hope of controlling Australian foreign policy and getting its hands on New Caledonia. (But I’d be surprised if Australia itself didn’t also have intentions on that island…) This would be a case of two crooks agreeing to con a third, even if it means settling matters later.

It seems to me that Australia is in a paradoxical situation:

1. In the current international context, having conventional diesel/electric submarines, while there are plenty of nuclear submarines, is like having a 1910 Ford T racing against a Ferrari.

2. But acquiring nuclear submarines involves huge logistics that Australia is unlikely to be able to afford, which means that it will be dependent on the logistics offered by the seller, and at the seller’s price. That’s putting your hand in the wheel and you can’t take it out.

3. I have a feeling that the Australians will be waiting a long, long time for the US to deliver atomic submarines, and that it will be very, very expensive.

4. Finally, if, as has recently been reported, it is now Britain that is proposing to deliver nuclear submarines to Australia, then we are back to the three crooks formula I mentioned, but the roles are simply changed and Britain is posing as a competitor to the US in a strategic market, and it is unclear how the US will react.

To conclude, the French government is hardly in a position to be indignant about the “betrayal” of Australia and the United States because when it is a matter of “raison d’État”, state reason, no one is sentimental.

In the early 1970s, a secret agreement was signed between France and Libya on the sale of more than 100 Mirage fighters, to be delivered progressively until 1974. This agreement was considered a betrayal by the Americans and the Israelis, because at the same time, France blocked the delivery of Mirages to Israel in application of the embargo on the sale of arms to the Hebrew state, decided by General de Gaulle at the end of the Six-Day War.

Georges Pompidou, the French president who had succeeded General de Gaulle, paid an official visit to the United States one month after the revelation by the Israeli secret service of the contract with Libya. It was a stormy visit: on the campus of Stanford, in Chicago or in New York, thousands of demonstrators, mostly Jewish, attacked the French president for having sold Mirages to Libya and not to Israel.

What motivated the French government was the “raison d’Etat”, as it is for the United States today. What was at stake in the 70s was simply the delivery of oil. Israel didn’t have oil but Libya did. And when it comes to oil, you don’t get sentimental.

The United States will not say otherwise.

[…]

As for the possibility of creating a European armed force, which Emmanuel Macron wants, I think it is a chimera: such a project presupposes a minimum of unity in the projects of the states making up the union, and this unity is far from existing.

The American influence remains predominant. For example Poland, although a member of the European Union, buys billions of dollars worth of American weapons. That said, this attitude is quite rational: given Poland’s proximity to Russia, American protection against possible aggression must seem more reliable to the Polish leadership than protection from a Europe that has no army. Here again, the Poles are not sentimental.

At most (in my opinion) there will be occasional interventions by one or more states forming the Union on one-off operations.

It is unlikely that other European states will intervene in Mali and the Sahel in general to support France, except very marginally. France is not intervening in Mali to support democracy or to fight Islamism, but to protect its mineral supplies, especially the uranium that its 59 nuclear reactors need. And in that region, French and US imperialisms strongly confront each other.

If you want to get an idea of the issues facing the Mail, see:

Jeremy Keenan: The Dying Sahara: US Imperialism and Terror in Africa, Pluto Press, and

Jeremy Keenan: The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa, Pluto Press.

Daniel Rashid:

I find it interesting you brought up the New Caledonia case, the successive independence referendums have received no coverage whatsoever in Australia – maybe a short mention in the international news, but hardly anyone knows about it.

Officially, our government’s position is that we support whatever decisions the Caledonians make, but implicitly we support it remaining part of France. The attitude is that if the French leave, then New Caledonia will become unstable, and we will be “forced” to intervene there like we did in the Solomon Islands or in Bougainville – we don’t want it to be our responsibility if things get out of control. It’s reasonably stable under French rule, and nobody knows if it’ll be stable under independent Caledonian rule, so the Australian government hedges its bets and sticks with French rule.

The potential independent New Caledonia could be compared to some of the other Pacific Island nations, like Samoa or Fiji. You’re right that they are effectively unable to exercise any meaningful independence; most of their leaderships (often corrupt) function by flip-flopping between China and Australia/the United States in order to secure investments, developmental aid, and so on. Essentially, selling themselves out to the highest bidding imperial power.

For instance, Papua New Guinea played Australia off against China to secure as many vaccine doses as possible: in the end, Australia is supplying 600 000 doses of AstraZeneca (surplus from our program) compared to 300 000 Sinopharm from China. Or, you could look at Fiji – both Australia and China offered to build a military base there. Eventually they signed an agreement with Australia because they added more “sweeteners” to the deal, as they were scared of China’s bid winning. Same with competing treaty proposals with Vanuatu, infrastructure bids in the Solomon Islands, etc…

It’s a minefield. Whatever political independence they could potentially have is lost, and the various attempts at forming regional power blocs like the Melanesian Spearhead Group or Polynesian Leadership Forum are ineffectual. The populations of these countries rely on subsistence agriculture (increasingly diminishing), very low-wage work, tourism, and above all remittances from relatives working in Australia and New Zealand. Climate change will quite literally drown many of these islands. It’s a bleak situation.

I’ve been doing some research on Papua New Guinea and the class conflicts going on there, and it’s pretty depressing…

I disagree somewhat that it’s a question of the US seeking to control Australian foreign policy. In a real sense, it’s about the Australian ruling class seeking to project itself best in its own imperial way. This tendency goes back over a hundred years – a big motivation for Australian independence from the British in 1901 is that the people sitting in London were poorly placed to do the job of keeping Asia under white rule, compared to the Australians, who were right on Asia’s doorstep. In WWII we formalised our trajectory away from the UK, towards the US, since the US was expanding in Asia where the UK was diminishing. Hence why Australia was so willing to join the US in invading Vietnam.

So it’s not a question of vassalage for Australia, I don’t think. It’s that Australia is an imperial power of its own, albeit one much smaller than the US. Australian companies have tremendous investments across the region. The political, military and policing classes of places like Papua New Guinea are reared in Australia, and Australia takes the lead in pushing these governments to release the huge swathes of customary land onto the market as private property, which would expropriate countless numbers of people. When these people resist, we support the regional cops coming in and brutalising them.

So for the Australian rulers, there was a free question of how best to protect our interests: keep up a deal with France and save ourselves a bit of money, or take the opportunity to suck up to the US, who are the enormous dominant power in the region, with bases all over? We did the latter and told France to get fucked. In fact, we wanted a stronger AUKUS pact than the one that was concluded: we basically wanted it to be a carbon-copy of NATO.

Fuck all of them!