French President Emmanuel Macron in Australia for talks on trade, climate and defence

France's President Emmanuel Macron (centre) poses for a photo with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy Turnbull outside the Sydney Opera House, on May 1, 2018.
France's President Emmanuel Macron (centre) poses for a photo with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy Turnbull outside the Sydney Opera House, on May 1, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Fresh from his so-called "bromance" in Washington with US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron is in Australia to bolster defence ties and continue his efforts to revive the fortunes of Europe.

Marking only the second visit by a French president to Australia, Mr Macron's trip reflects an unusual moment in which both nations have a particularly close alignment of interests. They are keen to combat rising global populism and illiberalism and to support free trade and cooperation on climate change.

Mr Macron arrived in Sydney on Tuesday night (May 1) and attended a dinner with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before official talks on Wednesday.

The two leaders are expected to discuss a A$50 billion (S$50 million) contract awarded to French firm Naval Group to build 12 submarines - the most expensive project of any kind in Australia's history.

Mr Macron, who is travelling with a delegation of military and naval personnel, and Mr Turnbull are also likely to discuss the extent of cooperation in building and securing components for the submarines and sharing technical data and knowledge.

A possible free trade agreement between Australia and the European Union could also be on the agenda.

Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said France and Australia are well-placed to try to guide new "coalitions of democracies" to address growing global concerns.

"The two countries face some similar security problems, including terrorism and extremism, Russian and Chinese challenges, foreign interference in democratic institutions, and alliance difficulties with America under Trump," he wrote in The Australian Financial Review.

 

The only other visit to Australia by a French President was the one in 2014 by Mr Francois Hollande, who made a state visit ahead of a meeting of Group of 20 leaders.

Mr Macron's trip was partly motivated by his desire to visit New Caledonia, a French territory in the Pacific whose citizens will vote on independence in November. After Australia, he will visit the territory to try to support the anti-independence cause. He has said France's presence was "necessary to guarantee peace and development".

Australia chose the French firm for the submarine project in 2016 ahead of bids from Japan and Germany. At the time, Canberra came under criticism for not using the deal to pursue shared interests with Japan in the Asia-Pacific region.

But observers now say that Australia and France have their own shared strategic interests.

Indeed, Mr Turnbull has explicitly linked the need to pursue closer trade ties with Europe to a shared interest in combating populism.

"To meet the challenge of our times - the threat to openness, to freedom and to our individual humanity - democracies must rediscover their power and ­purpose," he said in Berlin last month.

"As we move to negotiate a free trade agreement between Australia and Europe, we have a special opportunity to show what we stand for, as well as what we stand against.