Navies, ships, culture, and learning to get along

I was both interested and amused to read of cultural complications between French and Australian participants in the latter country’s new submarine program.

“Not everyone thinks like the French,” explained Jean-Michel Billig, Naval Group’s program director for the project to build 12 new “Attack class” submarines.

“We have to make a necessary effort to understand that an Australian does not think like a French person, and that it’s not better or worse, it’s just Australian.”

He cited the barbecue as an example of Australian culture, which is an important part of fostering good work relations, but said there was a reciprocal need for Australians to understand the French sanctity of the lunch break — not just a sandwich snatched at the screen.

Mr Billig also suggested the submarine project needed to be organised so that French translations were not just into English, but Australian English, and for employees “to speak a common language in cultural terms”.

. . .

Another example of the cultural gap between both sides was highlighted when Naval Group CEO Hervé Guillou wrote to staff and referred to “la rentrée”, a term describing the time when staff go back to work in September after a company closes down throughout August for the traditional French holiday.

“Stunned” Australian staff reportedly had to be educated about the one-month holiday, while the French were also apparently surprised to see their colleagues’ insistence on punctuality, meaning “a meeting scheduled for an hour meant just that, not an extra 15 minutes”.

In France, according to, there is the concept of a “diplomatic 15 minutes”, indicating that one is not considered to be late if the tardiness is a quarter of an hour.

There’s more at the link.

I know something about such cultural complications from a rather lower-level perspective, from my service in South Africa’s armed forces.  Back in the early 1970’s, South Africa had agreed to buy four corvettes from Portugal, which later became the Baptista de Andrade class in that country’s navy.  Two more would have been built in South Africa, for a total of six ships in the class.  However, after the Carnation Revolution overthrew the right-wing Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, the purchase fell through.

Still needing new warships, South Africa turned to France.  A deal was struck to buy two avisos, light corvette-type warships of the A69 or D’Estienne d’Orves class, as well as two A70 Agosta class submarines.  South African sailors and other staff were sent to France to work with the shipyards during construction.  At the time, I’d just begun my military service.  I’d studied French to matriculation level at school, and also been a student member of Alliance Française for several years.  I was accordingly selected to form part of the project, and would have gone to France in early 1978.  However, the implementation of a mandatory United Nations arms embargo against South Africa in November 1977 meant that the ships could not be delivered, so the project was terminated, and I never got to go.  The two corvettes were subsequently sold to Argentina as part of that nation’s three-vessel Drummond class, and the two submarines to Pakistan.

Even though I didn’t get to France myself, I remember several discussions with other members of the team concerning cultural interactions and (mis)understandings.  South African personnel in France complained about many of the same issues the Australians are running into now, particularly the sacrosanct Mediterranean-area siesta after lunch (whether workers were on the clock or not).  Even though workers were supposed to be working, more than half of them could usually be found curled into out-of-the-way compartments aboard the ships, fast asleep, between noon and 3 p.m.   Outraged protests about the practice got absolutely nowhere;  French labor unions regarded it as all part of the job, and flatly refused to impose a stricter work discipline on their members.  (I remember one South African officer complained that the post-prandial odor of garlic and red wine in some compartments was almost overpowering.  Very un-South-African, that – nothing like boerewors and beer!)

Be that as it may, some Australians see the lighter side of the impasse.

First thing to get your melons around is that the French are fabulous people, it’s just that when it comes to being a weird mob, they are the gold medallists, while we can only crack it for silver.

The second thing to realise is that their wonderful creativity actually originates from their sometimes shambolic nature. If I may draw on the celebrated Jean Cocteau bon mot that the “French are just the Italian in a bad mood” … Don’t try to tighten the parameters within which their French flair reigns, embrace it. It’s just the way they are.

. . .

[The French] want the spirit of something, rather than the dull literal meaning.

Hence a meeting at 10 am, doesn’t actually mean at 10 am, it means as soon as you can after 10 am, and we’ll see how we go.

But, and make no mistake, if that meeting goes until lunchtime, it will be stopped rigidly at lunchtime because the only thing that can get in way of lunch is … dinner, should our lunch run long.

Praise the Lord, and pass the wine!

For you see, here is the key to the French. Beyond being world leaders in submarine technology, they’ve also got the market cornered on all the finer things to do with pleasure – from cuisine, to wine, to fashion, to art, to, yes, sexual expression. It’s just in their blood, and nothing can get in its way.

Again, more at the link.

Despite the complications, I’m sure Australia will be satisfied with its new vessels.  The French build good submarines.  South Africa operated three Daphne class subs for decades, and they gave valuable service.  They were small and quiet enough to give serious scares to a few Western nuclear submarines that traveled the Cape sea route from time to time, and exercised with local ships;  and they successfully completed numerous clandestine missions into Angolan and Mozambican waters during the Border War.



  1. Peter Fitzsimmons, called Bandana Boy by Tim Blair. Unfortunately Tim's behind the pay wall now, so we can't read the funny things Tim has to say about Pete. And others.

  2. In the mid-80s the Coast Guard started getting the French Aerospatiale Dauphin helicopter (HH-65A) to replace the Sikorsky HH-52A.

    Reading the tech manuals was a little odd. The story was 'they' hired collage kids to translate the French into English. It was a little different..

  3. I'm afraid that once again Australia is being ripped off by European manufacturers, we are paying 50 Billion Australian for 12 Diesel Submarines and the first one won't be commissioned until 2030 at the earliest!! The last one will be delivered in 2050, for heavens sake, in 30 years who knows what advances will have been made in submarine warfare!

    We could have purchased Japanese subs for a fraction of the price or, heaven forbid American nuculear attack subs.

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