Australian Defence Minister David Johnston and DCNS CEO Herve Guillou launch a new Australian subsidiary for French submarine corporation DCNS (photo courtesy DCNS).

Standing beside Prime Minister Tony Abbott at a joint press conference in Canberra on November 19, French President Francois Hollande highlighted the important collaboration of French and Australian corporations in the defence sector.

Speaking in French, he stated:

“We are allies as well through our defence industries, because we manufacture — our French and Australian companies manufacture — processes, notably for the most essential equipment for the French strategic force, the French nuclear force, a part of this equipment is manufactured here in Australia.”

Hollande’s endorsement of the contribution by Australian corporations to France’s nuclear strike capacity can be seen on the video released by the French Presidential Palace (quote starts at 9:03 minutes).

However, when you go to the English-language transcript of the press conference on Abbott’s website, part of the translation is missing. There’s a reference to “France’s strategic strength”, but the words “the French nuclear force” are nowhere to be found.

Maybe the word “nuclear” brings back memories of Mururoa Atoll and the Rainbow Warrior and the tense relationship between the two countries during 30 years of French nuclear testing in the south Pacific.

Hollande’s formal state visit — the first by a French president — was supposed to transcend past rivalries. Media coverage of the President’s visit highlighted joint action on trade and terrorism, the emotional link of Villers-Bretonneux and the slaughter of World War I Diggers in France. But both governments are reluctant to talk about modern strategic warfare.

France resists international calls for comprehensive disarmament negotiations and maintains a significant nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 300 nuclear warheads. Successive Australian governments also refuse to criticise extended nuclear deterrence. Last October, 155 countries endorsed a New Zealand statement to the United Nations on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. Canberra refused to sign on and put forward a counter-resolution, a worrying diplomatic stand as we move towards the Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, to be held in Vienna on December 8-9.

A crucial part of the French nuclear strike force is the four Triomphant-class ballistic missile submarines of the French Navy, which can carry up to 16 M45 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The French Defence Ministry is currently upgrading these older nuclear systems with new M51 SLBM missiles.

These Triomphant subs were constructed by the French naval shipbuilding corporation DCNS, formerly the state-owned naval dockyards but now a privatised company specialising in submarine and warship construction. The French defence corporation Thales, which has extensive operations in Australia, has taken a 25% stake in DCNS (subsidiary Thales Australia is chaired by Paul McClintock, former secretary to cabinet and head of the Howard government cabinet policy unit in 2000-2003).

During his visit last week, Hollande toured the Thales facility at Rydalmere in New South Wales, accompanied by Australian Defence Minister David Johnston and French corporate leaders. Hollande was shown Thales’ Scylla submarine sonars for Australia’s Collins class submarines, including the latest Flank Array upgrades and integration capabilities (the visit went viral in France, with footage of Hollande flirting with a female Thales employee who was trying to explain the virtues of the company’s sonar arrays).

A spokesperson for Thales declined to detail the company’s contribution to the French submarine force but confirmed: “Thales Australia contributes various sonar technologies to French submarine programs.”

Among the business delegation accompanying Hollande was Herve Guillou, chair and CEO of the French naval shipbuilding corporation DCNS. At a ceremony with Johnston, Guillou launched a new DCNS subsidiary in Australia, to position the French corporation to contribute to SEA1000 (the “Future Submarine Australia” program).

A crucial figure in France’s nuclear program, Guillou began his engineering career in the late 1970s on the French nuclear submarines Rubis and Triomphant, before serving as managing director of the nuclear engineering specialist Technicatome. He also worked with the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (EADS), with responsibility for France’s Ariane rocket launcher and the M51 nuclear missile programs. From 2012 to 2014, he worked as senior adviser for defence and security with EADS (now the Airbus Space and Defence division), before taking up his post at DCNS last July.

This week, Johnston told the Senate that he wouldn’t trust ASC Pty Ltd (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) “to build a canoe”.

It seems when it comes to the debate about submarines, rhetorical flourishes are the order of the day. The French embassy in Canberra declined to elaborate on Hollande’s statement, stating that it was a “sensitive” issue. The debate about submarines, foreign corporations and defence integration has a long way to go.

Peter Fray

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