As a general rule, I’m a great admirer of the French. They have an effortless style, an endearing self-confidence, and a love of the finer things in life. They bought us Hermes, Michelin stars and feral animals slow-cooked in plonk. They have been a long-time ally of Australia; a friendship most notably forged on the Western Front.
But like all relationships, we’ve had our ups and downs. And at the moment we are in that awkward space before we talk about ‘taking a bit of a break’ from each other.
How did we get here?
Well, back in 2016, the Turnbull government was scouring for a project to splash some taxpayers’ cash in Christopher Pyne’s home town to save his scrawny tush at the election. The French just happened to be loitering around with a bridge to sell us.
And we bought the bridge.
Thankfully, there was at least one wise head in the negotiating room who put some gates in the contract which would allow the Australian government to withdraw from the contract at various stages. Anyway, the bridge got delayed and more expensive, and a few weeks ago, the Federal government pulled the pin. At the same time, the government announced the AUKUS deal with Britain and the United States which would, amongst other things, deliver Australia a fleet of nuclear submarines.
Cue Macron ascending his hack.
First, the French pulled their ambassador. Then they started bitching about us to other EU states in the bathroom at the tennis club and told them not to play with us on free trade. This week, the niggling and the whinging finally culminated in a spectacular tantrum with Macron calling Morrison a liar.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was an episode of the Real Housewives of the United Nations.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Anthony Albanese, the federal opposition leader and the most forgettable person in Australian politics, decided to invite himself to the affray and side with the French.
So desperate to gain some ground on the domestic scene, Albo mounted a lamentation at the feet of the now deceased French contract and called the Prime Minister’s integrity into question. It was a performance worthy of Jean Racine himself but without the same ability to read the room. Albo appears to have overlooked two rather pertinent points: first, the French don’t vote in the Australian federal election. And second, it’s unlikely too many people will shift their votes to Labor because they are inconsolable about Morrison upsetting the French. This drama is, at best, the plastic wrapped toothpick sitting next to the AUKUS main course.
Labor has been cheered on by the Australian media who seem to be morbidly invested in Australia being embarrassed on the international stage. Let’s not pretend they are interested in the unbiased reporting of the news; they are more concerned with showing their lefty mates in Europe that they are true believers and equal to the task of ‘hating the Tories’.
Ironically, the AUKUS deal appears to have gone down very well with the electorate here in Australia. I’d comfortably call it a net positive. The posturing by Labor and the media is intended to distract from what is otherwise a very good deal, made with our closest allies, in the best interests of Australia.
Initially, Labor didn’t push back too much on AUKUS and it wasn’t until the French launched into Act 3: Scene 1 that Labor thought they would have a crack at making some political mileage out of it. Until then, most of the histrionics was courtesy of the Greens who labelled the swanking new submarines as ‘floating Chernobyls’. Even the most diehard progressives thought that comparison was funnier than Hannah Gadsby.
In reality, most of us had an inkling the French were having a lend of us, and equally, we are pretty sure they’ll eventually get over it; particularly if Macron survives his next presidential election. And if he doesn’t, well, then this tiff will be even more swiftly consigned to the annals of history.
Ultimately, there is so much to bind Australia and France. We have real friendship made in a time of real adversity.
We will rebuild the rift — or the bridge, as the case may be.
Caroline Di Russo is a lawyer, businesswoman and unrepentant nerd.
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