Macron heading to Australia to boost defense ties, raise French profile

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron heads to Australia on Tuesday in hopes of cementing defense ties, pursuing his agenda to boost France’s profile beyond Europe in a region where it maintains a string of island territories.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron holds a town hall meeting with U.S. students at George Washington University in Washington, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Presidential aides said the military partnership with Australia was becoming crucial at a time of tension in the South China Sea between rival emerging nations, a region that is also a focus of global trade.

France cites its small island territories in the Indian and Pacific oceans in its claims as an Asia-Pacific regional power.

Macron will be traveling with a delegation of small- and mid-sized military and naval contractors to build on a $38 billion contract France won in 2016 to supply submarines to Australia.

“The idea is to transform this partnership, which made a very impressive jump forward with the submarine contract, into a catalyst to boost trade,” an official from Macron’s office said.

Australia selected France’s DCNS - now called Naval Group - in 2016 as its preferred bidder to build its fleet of 12 submarines, ahead of other offers from Japan and Germany - one of the world’s most lucrative defense contracts.

Macron’s trip will be the first strictly bilateral visit by a French president to Australia and comes soon after a three-day visit to Washington, where he flaunted his friendship with President Donald Trump while challenging many of his policies, urging the United States to engage more with the world, step up the fight against climate change and stay in the Iran nuclear pact for now.

Macron’s time in Australia will also provide plenty of the photo opportunities at iconic sites of which the energetic 40-year-old French leader is fond.

After landing in Sydney, Macron will head to dinner with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the famed Opera House in the city’s harbor. He will also talk up French gastronomy at a French bistro, visit an art gallery and meet Aboriginal artists.

In a more sensitive part of his trip, Macron will then head off to the French island of New Caledonia, which will vote in November on whether to break with France and become independent.

French officials said Macron would refrain from giving voting recommendations.

But he will seek to strike a balance between commemorating the past on the 30th anniversary of the “Ouvea cave massacre”, in which 19 indigenous separatists and two French soldiers were killed, and talking about the future of the nickel-rich island.

Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by John Irish and Mark Heinrich