Quelle surprise – as a French person might say, with a tinge of irony. French President Emmanuel Macron, during his trip to China last week, consciously distanced France from the US and much of Europe over China with respect to Taiwan.

On a flight between Beijing and Guangzhou, Macron spoke to reporters from the US-based publication Politico and French daily Les Echos. He repeated his view that Europe should develop a “strategic autonomy” independent of the US. This despite the fact the nations are members of NATO.

Both publications quoted the French President as saying: “The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate (a crisis) on Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese over-reaction.”

It is somewhat presumptuous for Macron to speak on behalf of “we Europeans”. He certainly does not speak for Britain or Poland, among other nations of western and central Europe. Also, the US has not told France to take its cue on anything. But there is no doubt that Macron was quoted accurately. His words were approved before publication by the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Macron’s comments in China, following his meeting with President Xi Jinping on April 7, give the impression that France regards the US as primarily responsible for the tension between it and China. This does not explain why nations such as Japan, South Korea, The Philippines and Vietnam are also deeply concerned about China’s encroachment in the South China Sea and its evident aggression towards Taiwan.

In his recent visit to The Netherlands, Macron doubled down on his earlier comments, declaring: “Being an ally does not mean being a vassal … doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to think for ourselves.” It was another example of the French leader not being helpful. Right now NATO, including the US, is attempting to put pressure on the Chinese Communist Party not to increase its support for Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine with the aim of capturing its capital, Kyiv. The world leaders most satisfied with the French President’s performance in China, apart from Macron himself, would be Putin and Xi.

In the US, Macron was most strongly criticised by former president Donald J. Trump. President Joe Biden said little but there was criticism of Macron by Democratic Party operatives close to the White House.

Macron’s cosying up to the CCP’s leadership indicates that Australia was fortunate that Scott Morrison’s Coalition government in September 2021 cancelled his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull’s decision that Australia build its next fleet of submarines with the French company Naval Group. The concept was that the French nuclear-powered Shortfin Barracuda boat be converted to a conventionally powered sub.

There was a concern that the proposed conversion was an immense task and that, in any event, conventional boats would not be fit for purpose for protecting Australia’s sea lanes in the vast Pacific and Indian oceans.

In his 2020 memoir A Bigger Picture, Turnbull defended the decision. But he did not address the reliability of France to supply military technology and parts in the event that Australia was in a potential or real conflict with which France did not agree.

Precedent indicates that France is not a dependable supplier of military hardware to its friends. At the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, commonly called the Six-Day War, French president Charles de Gaulle refused to deliver 50 Mirage jet fighters that had already been paid for by Israel. France decided that its interests lay with Arab nations, not Israel.

In 1982, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in Britain took military action to drive Argentinian forces out of the Falkland Islands following Argentina’s invasion of the British territory. Before the conflict began, France had supplied five Exocet missiles to Argentina, then led by a military dictatorship. The missiles were used to sink two British naval ships. French president Francois Mitterrand soon declared an embargo on French military supplies to Argentina and provided Britain with the use of French ports along with intelligence sharing.

However, the French ambassador in London was critical of Thatcher’s alleged “combative instincts”. As it turned out, a French technical team stayed in Argentina throughout the conflict and assisted the military junta to repair three Exocet missiles that were later used against British forces.

This is documented by Miles Thomson on the BBC news website on March 6, 2012.

In view of this history and Macron’s recent soft stance on China, it would be unwise for any Australian government to rely too heavily on France’s weapons of war and technology. The AUKUS agreement between Australia, Britain and the US is technically very ambitious. However, the precedent in this instance indicates that the US and the UK are reliable allies.

Australia has its own (almost forgotten) history with France as an unreliable ally. France fell to Germany – led by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler – in June 1940. Germany occupied northern France and the collaborationist regime, based in Vichy, controlled the southern part of the country. To simplify, pro-Germany Vichy France (led by Philippe Petain) was opposed by the Free French administration (led by de Gaulle) that was based offshore.

The conflict between the Allies and Vichy France is well told by Colin Smith in England’s Last War Against France (Hachette, 2009). For its part, the Australian government in the early years of World War II, led by Robert Menzies, played a pivotal role in ensuring that the Free French, rather than Vichy France, controlled New Caledonia. This is covered by Denise Fisher in the December 2010 issue of the journal Explorations.

In time de Gaulle, with the assistance of the Allies, prevailed over his country’s Nazi collaborators. But not before former Australian diplomat Roden Cutler won a VC and lost his leg at Merdjayoun, Syria in June 1941. Many know of the courage of Cutler and his colleagues. But it comes as a surprise to some when they learn that he was shot by Vichy French forces.