French company Naval Group won the contract to build Australia’s new fleet of submarines. (Supplied: Defence Department)
After securing the so-called “contract of the century”, the French company chosen to build Australia’s future submarines has conceded it’s having cultural clashes with its $50 billion customer, with lunch and meeting times proving problematic.
- The ABC has been told of numerous frustrations between French and Australian officials working on the contract
- One official said Australians needed to understand the sanctity of the lunch break — not just a sandwich snatched at the screen
- The French Naval Group is developing “intercultural courses” for French staff being posted to Australia
In 2016, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced French company Naval Group, then known as DCNS, had been awarded the lucrative contract, beating rival bids from Germany’s TKMS and the Japanese Government.
Since that time the ABC has been told of numerous difficulties and frustrations between French and Australian officials, although a long-awaited strategic partnering agreement was finally signed earlier this year.
In a series of candid interviews with the defence industry publication SLDInfo.com, Naval Group officials have now offered insights into the problems the French company is facing in dealing with Australia.
“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”.
According to SLDInfo.com, Naval Group is now “implementing a change in employee communications and behaviour, in a bid to smooth out cultural differences between French and Australian staff”.
Former French nuclear submarine commander Yvan Goalou, who is now Naval Group’s institutional relationship manager, was quoted as saying there was also a need for listening and humility.
“Based on discussions, there is a willingness to know the qualities and faults of each other, not to use them but to converge, to find common points so we can work together, so we can deliver,” he said.
“There is search for openness and sharing.”
Australia’s Collins Class submarines will be retired when replacements are delivered in the 2030s. (ADF)
Courses and workshops planned to stop conflicts
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 SLDInfo.com, 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.
Naval Group’s global human resources business partner Marion Accary said the company was also developing tools for “intercultural courses” for French staff being posted to Australia, which include two-hour seminars and one-day workshops.
These aim to prepare French expatriates and their families “how to behave, how to understand and decode”.
“The staff will learn how to communicate, hold meetings and work in French-Australian teams,” Ms Accary said.
“Personnel will also be encouraged to take distance from situations which might seem to be conflictual due to misunderstanding.”
Earlier this month, the ABC revealed Australians working on the future submarine program in France were sending their children to a $53,000-a-year British boarding school at taxpayers’ expense, because local classes are not taught in English.
The first of the new French-designed submarines are not due to be in service until the mid-2030s.
The Chief of Navy has signalled Australia’s entire fleet of ageing Collins Class submarines might need upgrading before the French-built replacements are ready.