“What the Deuce had he to do aboard that Galley?”, said Molière in 1671.1

Why did the French Minister of Defence, Mr Le Drian, become so vocal in 2016, when he called for European patrols in the South China Sea (SCS)? Why, since then, has there been such zeal to join the diplomatico-naval traffic jam in the SCS? Can France really bring any value-added to managing this issue?

It is true that France can be seen as a naval power, albeit this is a little known fact. Its defence relies partly on four fully autonomous nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines; one CATOBAR carrier (Catapult Assisted Take-Off but Arrested Recovery) wherein it is the only country other than USA to use this system; and one Missile Range Instrumentation Ship, alongside only three other countries that have it. Moreover, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), it participates in surveillance missions to enforce Resolution 2375 off North Korea.

France could also be seen as an Indo-Pacific power, considering its regional 9-million-square-meter Exclusive Economic Zone, its 1.6 million citizens living in the Indo-Pacific (including 200,000 expatriates), its five military commands, three bases and more than 7,000 military personnel in this vast area. Furthermore, France takes part in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, the South Pacific Defence Ministers’ Meeting, the Pacific Coast Guard Forum, the Pacific Army Chiefs Conference, and the South West Pacific Heads of Maritime Forces Meeting, among others.

The key question remains: can France play a major part in the SCS? Or is it going to get lost or drown if it intervenes? Or should the SCS be considered as a springboard for a broader strategy by France? To answer these critical questions, this paper intends to assess the French state of play in the SCS and – and this is the main argument – beyond the SCS.

France: Neither a key actor in the SCS…

France could have been seen as lacking diplomatic sensitivity when its Minister for Foreign Affairs called for an obvious and natural “Asian Pivot” in 2013. In spite of the early French presence in Indochina2, Paris cannot rely on strong linguistic or cultural links to the region. Even its economy does not depend largely on maritime security in this region. There is no “SCS Dilemma” for Paris similar to the “Malacca Dilemma” for China. And, above all, France cannot preach to China, because of its own disputes over islands in the Mozambique Channel, thus explaining its lack of very firm comments following the arbitration ruling in July 2016.

The French armed forces are already involved in Africa and in the Middle-East; Paris cannot afford any new major operations. And the French military bases are not so near the SCS (with 6,429 km from Nouméa to Manila; and 5,762 km from Réunion Island to Jakarta). Moreover, French Polynesia has a very specific status; it has its own currency, and is driven by a rational search for autonomy. In New Caledonia, the next referendum for independence will be keenly contested.

… nor an odd man out in the SCS

However, one should not deny the fact that Paris has been involved in the SCS since 1884 (and again in 1935 and 1946). In the region, the French defence industry is growing fast (+28% in 2015 compared with only +12% in 1998-2002). New Caledonia and French Polynesia are also directly impacted by IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing; if there are no more fish stocks in the SCS, fishing vessels will move to the French EEZ. Lastly, at the military level, Paris intends to be able to pursue its partnerships and drills with the littoral states without having to ask any prior authorisation.

More generally, France is deeply and historically concerned with the ‘rules of order’ and the ‘freedom of navigation’ as well as by environmental and HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) issues, all of which are significant in the SCS.

Underestimated French assets

Paris does not have to start from scratch in sustaining these legitimate interests in the SCS. There have always been regular ports-of-calls to and from French Polynesia across Southeast Asia, besides the quasi-annual Jeanne d’Arc missions3, a visit by the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle in 2019 and the presence of liaison officers in the Singaporean, Madagascan and Indian Information Fusion Centres. Above all, the Marine nationale takes part in many exercises such as Komodo in Indonesia, Varuna in India and now SEACAT (Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training) as an observer.

At the end of the day, what then should we believe to be France’s role in the SCS? It seems that the answer should be based on current trends in international relations. Considering the global context, France has a diplomatic niche to offer.

Indeed, many analysts have written about the ‘retreat’ or ‘backlash’ involving the Great Powers: how the US has become unpredictable, the rising “post-hegemonism” era4, as well as the uncertainty of China’s regional role and its “debt traps”. This explains why many countries are in search of a “third way”, as the regional states do not intend “to have to choose”.

Secondly, there has been a decline of the ‘military only’ approach, in the strict sense of the word. On the one hand, China has militarized its presence in the SCS and US conducts “‘useless’ Freedom of Navigation Operations”; on the other hand, we see the growing number of militias and ‘white hulls’ in the seas of the region.

These two major trends put together give a unique opportunity to Paris to be one of the new actors and to offer new methods or approaches to security in the region.

French initiatives answer the call for new actors.

In response to the regional search for new partners, Paris has shown clearly its ambition for the Indo-Pacific through a consistent series of speeches and documents5 which focus on maritime security. Deeply rooted in the French ‘diplomatic DNA’6, the idea is to offer an alternative to the China-or-USA dilemma, starting from a Paris-New Delhi-Canberra axis towards multilateralism, via Southeast Asia, Singapore (guest-of-honour for the 2018 Bastille Day) and the Philippines (official visits to Paris, purchase of naval equipment).

For the immediate future, clear priorities have been defined: to join ADMM+ Working Groups (especially on maritime security), participate in the ReCAAP-ISC and hold more joint naval drills.

France, in tune with the region in developing new approaches

“In France, we have no money but ideas… ”, goes one slogan7. One such idea is the ‘State Action at Sea’8. This very unique model, which facilitates coordination between Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies with the help of maritime prefects, under the direct authority of the Prime Minister, is an alternative to the so-called “coastguardization” of maritime security. It does not rely on a specific agency, like coast-guards, but on the coordination at the national level among the ones existing at sea. This original approach is something that the Philippine National Coast Watch Centre, the BAKAMLA in Indonesia and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, might find interesting.

France also comes together with the European Union on maritime affairs, e.g.. the experience off Somalia against piracy, projects along the “Critical Maritime Routes”9 (now in Southeast Asia) and the issuance of some joint statements with Berlin and London about the SCS last August.

In bringing these ideas to the table, Paris does not intend to bring its supposed former grandeur back; instead, it lucidly refers to pragmatism. This ‘gaullo-mitterrandism’ (named after the two presidents, who embodied this independent and audacious – but not arrogant – diplomacy) echoes ASEAN’s “hedging” and could also resonate with the regional “strategic ambiguity”10 – or flexibility.

In conclusion, let us point out that there are only 4 and 0 mentions of the “SCS” in the French Indo-Pacific Doctrines respectively published by the Ministry of Armed Forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2019. Is the time now coming for regional states to zoom out from the SCS and out onto the Indo-Pacific?

Instead of a supposed diplomatic ‘galley’ among the numerous coast-guards and militias already sailing across the South China Sea, France is working hard to deploy its frigates and aircraft carrier (cf. the Clemenceau mission in 2019) against the updated hostis humani generis in the Indo-Pacific. In the bigger area of the Indo-Pacific and with a broader definition of (human) security, there is no reason for Paris not to join the global and comprehensive effort.

Opinions expressed in this presentation belong solely to the author. This paper was first presented at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Maritime Security Outlook Workshop, in Singapore, on the 15th of January, 2020, and at De La Salle University, in Manila, on the 29th of November 2019 – with the kind help of IRASEC (Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia), in Bangkok.


End notes:

Molière (translated by Charles Heron Wall), The Impostures of Scapin, 1671.

Beside Raffles in 1819 as well; ‘technically’ in Java in 1810-1811; through embassies in Siam in the 17th century; etc.

Five-month academy on Mistral-class ships.

Bertrand Badie, L’Hégémonie contestée Les nouvelles formes de domination internationale [Challenged hegemony: the new forms of international domination], Paris, Odile Jacob, 2019.

Available online; statements by the President, the Ministry of Armed forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc.

See de Gaulle’s speech in Phnom Penh in 1966 to challenge both American and Soviet hegemonies; Villepin’s speech at the UNSC in 2003 against the War in Iraq.

Elf (now Total) slogan in 1976.

AEM or Action de l’Etat en mer.

The Critical Maritime Routes Programme was funded and set up by the European Union (EU), in 2009. https://criticalmaritimeroutes.eu/ (accessed on the 9th of March 2020).

10 Delphine Allès, « En mer de Chine méridionale, « l’ambiguïté » est la meilleure stratégie » [In the South China Sea, ‘ambiguity’ is the best strategy], Le Monde, 2 June 2017.

Eric Frécon


Eric Frécon is research consultant with the Stable Seas program and instructor at SUSS (Singapore University of Social Sciences). He is also coordinator of the Southeast Asia Observatory of Asia Centre (Paris) and adjunct fellow with IRASEC (Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia, Bangkok), IRSEM (Strategic Research Institute, Paris) and the French Naval Academy. He has conducted field research on maritime security, primarily about pirates and sea robbers in the Riau Islands.