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Le cultural clash

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 10 May 2019

It took the Australian Government years to decide whom to task with building its next generation submarine fleet. It was still not enough time to prepare them for the cultural clash that followed.

Back in 2016, the Australian Prime Minister – Malcolm Turnbull, most probably – awarded the AU$50 billion contract to French company Naval Group over rival offers from German and Japanese firms.

As the ABC recently reported, building submarines involves far more than high-tech engineering, quality materials and good project management. As it turns out, cultural sensitivities also matter.

The problems started on a small scale when some Australian defence personnel and their families were posted for four years to the French company’s shipbuilding base in Cherbourg. To their surprise, they noted that everyone over there spoke French. Worse, there were no schools where their children could study Australian English.

Facing this obvious and unforeseeable emergency, the Australian Defence Department had to settle for the next best thing: a boarding school across the English Channel in Portsmouth. At a cost of £28,740, paid for by Australian taxpayers, the children of Australian navy engineers will now be educated there. Travel between Britain and France will also be covered.

While the Australians in France ensured that their children did not have to learn French, the French in Australia ensured that they did not have to become Australian.

A few things seem non-negotiable for French employees contracted to build submarines in Australia. Lunch breaks mean proper breaks with proper meals, not just a sandwich in front of a screen. It is appropriate to be a quarter of an hour late for meetings and for meetings to go on much longer than scheduled. And what is wrong with everyone taking a month-long vacation during summer?

As the ABC reported, the cultural clashes between Australians and French have become so severe that efforts have begun to rectify them. Seminars and full-day workshops are being offered to French staff to explain Australian manners and the importance of BBQs, and to teach them Australian English.

The situation is serious, so perhaps our government offered some technical assistance.

The New Zealand Treasury just presented a new card game made just for hopeless situations like this.

After some charcoaled kangaroo washed down with a few bottles of Beaujolais, maybe the Aussies and the French could explore what sun and moon feelings they share – and forget about those troublesome submarines.

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