With a federal election in the offing, the visit to Australia by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to mark the $50 billion submarine contract earlier this month, apparently couldn't be made to last more than three hours. This is regrettable. If Britain opts out of the European Union at the referendum on 23 June, France becomes more important to Australia than at any time in recent years. It might also be that in about 12 months, Valls is elected President of France.
Overlooked in discussion of the decision to build 12 submarines with French firm DCNS - the implications for our relationship with Japan and by default, China - is that it reconfirms Australia's reputation when it comes to big defence contracts for even-handed selection based on declared criteria. That these include technology transfer; access to international markets; and above all the employment of Australians, is seen as entirely legitimate even admirable by most of our international interlocutors.
The message it transmits is that government in Australia is not the handmaiden of some military industrial complex (at home or abroad) and that whatever the imperatives of 'Five Eyes' intelligence, the centrality of our alliance with the United States, or the significance of the strategic relationship with Japan, we don't compromise when it comes to choosing international partners or quality kit.
As for Valls' visit, it had to be made given the sheer size of the contract, one of the largest ever concluded by French defence industries. And the French PM was clear in his comments that he would take personal responsibility for supervising its vital first-stage implementation.
The subs wed Australia to France for decades, as has been widely noted, and Valls sees himself as the future of the French Socialist Party (PS). At 53, he could be the party's candidate at Presidential elections next May. Incumbent François Hollande has repeatedly said that if he can't "reverse the trend" of ten per cent French unemployment (whatever that might ultimately mean), he won't stand for reelection. France's latest jobless numbers may have offered some reprieve - dropping 60,000 in a month. But should the deeply unpopular Hollande choose not to run (or is knifed à l'Australienne), Valls would be the logical candidate. In any case, there's no secret of his ambitions to run for the Presidency next time in 2022.
The French parliamentary left still needs 1980s-style reforming, and Valls embodies the modernising right of the party with Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. The inclination is to view him as "Rocardien" - referring to former Socialist PM and good friend of Australia, Michel Rocard. In Australian terms this translates as, 'good economic policy is the key to all policy'.
Clear indicators of Valls' would-be cross-party appeal in Australia are that in 2007 centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy invited him to join the government (he declined); he has consistently positioned against the 35-hour French working week; and he's on record as saying the word "Socialist" is obsolete in the French political context and should be removed from the party name.
The submarine contract adds to the usual reasons given for Australia safeguarding good bilateral relations with France - permanent seat in the UN Security Council; large army; still major influence in Africa and its status as our nearest eastern neighbour due to its Pacific interests. And Australia could certainly use Valls' support in the EU-Australia free trade agreement negotiations set to start next year. Especially though, in the event of Brexit, the government might wish it had detained Monsieur Valls a little longer.
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