Australia and France international relations: 'It's embarrassing to be an Australian in France right now'

We'll always have Paris.

Well, maybe not.

Last month, when the Morrison government entered into an unfortunate diplomatic stoush with the French over the cancellation of a contract for 12 French-designed submarines, this not only had the French choking on their croissants, it caused more than a frisson in Australia.

Hearts sank at the thought the French might retaliate, not just in slowing trade deals, but in making access to France more difficult in terms of trade sanctions or imposing visas for Australian visitors.

Aside from the rejection of the submarines being a very real affront to Gallic pride, the French view the awkward AUKUS alliance as a serious setback to their ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. As expected, EU President Ursula von der Leyen took France's side. With Angela Merkel retiring, Emanuel Macron is now the senior politician in the European Union. That's a very big block to get offside.

Many Australians were horrified at the graceless lack of diplomacy on our part. An Australian friend in Paris tells me it is a red-hot issue, with French wrath at Australia unabated. She says it's deeply "embarrassing" to be an Australian in France right now.

I lived in Paris in the early 1990s and the one thing I learned very well from the French is how to be overly dramatic at the right time to gain advantage. So, while the outrage is righteous, there's more than a bit of political theatre egging the response. France needs Australian tourists as much as we need them. Or so we hope.

Our passports may not be merde after all.

But looming on the very near horizon is a larger threat to Australia's place in the world and the high regard given to the bearer of the Australian passport. It's COP26, the UN global climate summit, and it's happening in Glasgow in a few weeks.


The ambition of the meeting is to work with every nation to reach the targets set by the Paris Accord of 2015, which aimed to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 celsius. To meet those targets, the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero as early as possible, with 2050 the outside target (and probably far too late.)

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that we only have 10 years to start to turn things around, otherwise the planet is set on an irreversible course that will make it inhospitable to human life. The heat is on, so to speak.

Ahead of the summit, a powerful group of travel industry leaders, drawn together by the World Tourism Organisation, has prepared the Glasgow Declaration, which aims to set clear targets for every sector and form alliances across the industry for sharing resources. Everyone is aware that it's time to make and urgently implement hard decisions, as tourism is highly vulnerable to climate change while also being one of the big greenhouse gas emitting industries.

As travellers, we can do our bit in the choices we make. But we need to make sure the ship we're travelling on is not the Titanic. And we have seen the biggest iceberg, climate change, looming for decades.

Another of Australia's icebergs, which might sink our reputation, is the Coalition's deep ties to the fossil fuel industry and its refusal to make a real commitment to reducing emissions at the level required. The tone is changing slightly as Glasgow approaches, but only to concede the most minimal of targets, an inadequate "net zero by 2050". It's a faint mumble from the bottom of a coalmine.

Perhaps the Morrison government will have a sudden change of heart when faced with the inevitability that Australia will be punished economically, through border taxes and the like. But we travellers are at the coal face, so to speak, and might be punished in different ways.

Years ago, I took a coach trip through Eastern Europe. The other passengers were a mix of nationalities, including four South Africans. At every border, it took less than a minute for our passports to be checked. Not so for the South Africans, who were taken aside, sometimes for 30 minutes or so, while their passports were closely scrutinised.

Those South African travellers were deeply opposed to apartheid. Although the trip was after apartheid had been repealed, they still bore the consequences of it when they travelled. Even if we're among the 70 per cent of Australians who demand more climate action from our government, we also might bear the brunt of its coal-hugging behaviour long past the time when coal mines and gas pipelines have closed and fossil fuels have been superseded by renewable energy technology.

When we lived in Paris, the French always loved us once they realised we weren't British. "Kangoooroo!" they'd exclaim, and it was a compliment.

I can't even imagine what they're calling us now.