Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground

Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground
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Mahnoosh Amiri during a visit to Simple Cafe in uptown Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 10, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground
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Feraidoon Hasas, a cafe manager in Kabul, looks on as a young man plays the guitar at the eatery, frequented mainly by young educated Afghans, on July 10, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground
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Young men play snooker in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, on July 10, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground
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Mina Rezayee, (right), owner of Simple Cafe, a well-known eatery in Kabul, with a friend, on July 10, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground
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Amiri said she's worried about the future and was looking to leave Afghanistan if the Taliban return to power. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
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Updated 14 July 2021

Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground

Home truths: Young Afghans mull migration as Taliban gains ground
  • Many fear freedom and liberties ‘could be undercut’ as Taliban advance and US-led forces leave Afghanistan

KABUL: In a dimly lit basement of a posh cafe in Kabul, a group of well-dressed young men and women break out into laughter while smoking shisha pipes over a warm meal of bread and kebabs, as loud music plays in the background.

They are interrupted by a power cut, a chronic problem in the Afghan capital, before the cafe owner cranks up the generator and the music resumes.

Several said a regular meeting with friends was part of their routine but voiced concern that “the freedom and liberties they currently enjoy could be undercut” as the Taliban gain ground and US-led NATO forces leave Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of occupation.

“The Taliban’s return will mean the end of our freedom,” Shaima Rezayee, a 22-year-old university student and part of the group at the Simple Cafe, told Arab News.

Rezayee said many modern professionals were weighing in on the danger of the Taliban’s rapid advancements while she was looking to “settle elsewhere” if the group returned to power.

“When they would not let us enjoy our rights, I might have to leave this country,” she said.

Rezayee is a part of Afghanistan’s young and highly educated generation that grew up under the shield of the US military – they have travelled the world, earned master’s degrees from acclaimed universities, and are “ambitious for a better and free life in this conservative society.”

Nearly everyone at the cafe said they had heard “stories from their parents and relatives” about the Taliban’s “repressive” government and its harsh policies for women when it ruled Afghanistan for five years until it was toppled from power by Washington in late 2001.

Since then, Afghan women have regained the right to education, to vote, and to work outside their homes. Still, it is not an easy place to be a woman, where forced marriages, domestic violence and maternal mortality continue to be prevalent across the country, particularly in its rural areas.

However, access to public life has improved, especially in Kabul, where thousands of women work, while more than a quarter of Parliament is female.

But fears are mounting over the potential degradation of hard-won rights as the Taliban overrun several areas in northern and northeastern Afghanistan, which was the bastion of the anti-Taliban alliance in the late 1990s.

Last week, State Minister for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Affairs Ghulam Bhauddin Jailani said that “over 32,400 families had been forced to leave their homes in various regions because of the violence in the past one and half month.”

“We have provided some of them some aid but require assistance for a long time,” he told reporters.

According to the government’s Refugee and Repatriations Ministry, more than 5,600 Afghan families had fled to neighboring areas in the past 15 days, as the Taliban seized control of 85 percent of the territory while reassuring the international community that “citizens would be safe under their rule.”

“The Islamic Emirate is against no one and wants to treat everyone with respect,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News.

He added that “young Kabulis who fear a Taliban takeover have been brainwashed by propaganda,” reiterating that the rights of all Afghans, including the youth, “will be preserved under Islamic laws.”

“The young generation is our asset and (we) consider them as our future. They are talented, have earned up-to-date knowledge of the world, they will face no problem of any sort,” Mujahid said.

However, residents such as university student Mahnoosh Amiri are not convinced.

“If the situation changes (leading to the Taliban’s return), the educated people of my generation will leave,” Amiri told Arab News, adding that her father, a Russian technocrat, was more worried about her future.

“He is keen that at least me, my two sisters, and two brothers should leave now before it becomes difficult to do so,” she said, before returning to her meal at the Simple Cafe, regularly frequented by young Afghans.

The eatery is located in Kabul’s upmarket area of Karte Char, also known as Afghanistan’s “little Europe,” due to its affluent residents and surroundings.

Mina Rezayee, 32, who set up the cafe four years ago, lamented that business has been slow, partly due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, rising insecurity across the country, the exit of US-led troops and speculations about the Taliban returning.

Mina, who has a degree in economics, lived as a refugee in Iran for a few years, and “despite knowing how tough it would be to migrate and leave the business behind,” she hasn’t ruled out migrating again.

“If I cannot study, work and be here in my cafe, then this place will be like a prison to me. It is not an easy decision to leave, and I have bitter memories and experiences from migration, but we will have no other option,” she told Arab News.

Long before US President Joe Biden announced the exit of foreign forces in April, tens of thousands of Afghans had fled to Europe, Australia, Turkey and the US in search of a better future, prompted by a surge in violence in Afghanistan.

Even though Washington had said for years it would withdraw its troops, Biden’s no-strings-attached announcement caught many Afghans by surprise, mainly because a peace deal between the Taliban and Kabul government had yet to be signed, despite the ongoing intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar.

Afghan soldiers have surrendered en masse since the start of the drawdown of foreign troops on May 1, handing over weapons and armored vehicles to the Taliban, while the insurgents consolidate their positions near provincial capitals, including Kabul.

A recent US intelligence assessment said that Kabul could fall to the Taliban within six months after Washington exited the country.

These warnings have led to a spike in the prices of passports and visas for certain countries as more affluent Afghans rush to leave.

Fatema Saadat, 30, who runs a private cleaning company with women workers, said the Taliban’s gains “would mean Afghanistan would become like a cage for us to breathe and work.”

“To live under such circumstances would be unbearable; I will leave too.”

Young model Nigara Sadaat, who was crowned Miss Afghanistan in 2020, said that an uptick in violence had already impacted the fashion and modelling industry and that she was “personally concerned” about the future of “artists” once the Taliban take over.

Fatema and Nigara’s views are a stark contrast from the sentiments expressed by women in the deeper pockets of Afghanistan.

Often dismissed as representing “only a small and privileged subset” of Afghanistan’s population of over 36 million, a July 6 study by the Afghanistan Analysts Network found that rural women were more concerned about sustainable peace, political stability and a reduction in violence in Afghanistan.

Amid the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains in recent weeks, Haroun Rahimi, a professor at the American University in Afghanistan, said hundreds had launched the Afghan Youth Movement for Peace to voice fears over the “loss of freedom.”

“Women, in particular, are afraid they won’t be able to go to school or work. This fear manifests itself in different forms: Some feel helpless, they are in despair, they don’t want to do anything, they just want to leave the country,” he told Arab News.

Others are more optimistic.

Feraidoon Hasas, a 23-year-old manager of Turk Cafe, said his business would “possibly be shut under the Taliban’s rule,” but prayed for the restoration of peace, recalling how his father would “praise the Taliban’s ability to implement the rule of law and uproot corruption to a large extent.”


Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station

Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station
Updated 50 min 55 sec ago

Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station

Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station
  • The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and were seated in reclining chairs just outside the capsule
  • State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert

BEIJING: A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after a 90-day stay aboard their nation’s first space station in China’s longest mission yet.
Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship just after 1:30 p.m. (0530 GMT) after having undocked from the space station Thursday morning.
State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert where it was met by helicopters and off-road vehicles. Minutes later, a crew of technicians began opening the hatch of the capsule, which appeared undamaged.
The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and were seated in reclining chairs just outside the capsule to allow them time to readjust to Earth’s gravity after three months of living in a weightless environment. The three were due to fly to Beijing on Friday.
“With China’s growing strength and the rising level of Chinese technology, I firmly believe there will even more astronauts who will set new records,” mission commander Nie told CCTV.
After launching on June 17, the three astronauts went on two spacewalks, deployed a 10-meter (33-foot) mechanical arm, and had a video call with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
While few details have been made public by China’s military, which runs the space program, astronaut trios are expected to be brought on 90-day missions to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional.
The government has not announced the names of the next set of astronauts nor the launch date of Shenzhou-13.
China has sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.
China’s space program has advanced at a measured pace and has largely avoided many of the problems that marked the US and Russian programs that were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of spaceflight.
That has made it a source of enormous national pride, complementing the country’s rise to economic, technological, military and diplomatic prominence in recent years under the firm rule of the Communist Party and current leader Xi Jinping.
China embarked on its own space station program in the 1990s after being excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to US objections to the Chinese space program’s secrecy and military backing.
China has simultaneously pushed ahead with uncrewed missions, placing a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon and, in December, the Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.
China this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, with its accompanying Zhurong rover venturing out to look for evidence of life.
Another program calls for collecting samples from an asteroid, an area in which Japan’s rival space program has made progress of late.
China also plans to dispatch another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and is pursuing a possible crewed mission to the moon and eventually building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.


Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president

Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president
Updated 17 September 2021

Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president

Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president
  • Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, is one the world's most-polluted cities with the concentration of PM2.5 regularly exceeding WHO norms
  • Citizen lawsuit was filed by Jakarta residents in July 2019 against the president and six other top government officials

JAKARTA: A Jakarta court on Thursday found Indonesian President Joko Widodo and government officials guilty of neglecting their obligation to fulfill citizens' rights to clean air, in a landmark lawsuit residents hope will force authorities to act on the capital city's notorious pollution.

Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, is one the world's most-polluted cities with the concentration of PM2.5 — inhalable microscopic pollution particularly harmful to human health — regularly exceeding World Health Organization norms, often manifold.

The citizen lawsuit was filed in July 2019 by 32 plaintiffs against the president, ministers of environment, home affairs and health, as well as the governor of Jakarta and two leaders of neighboring provinces. The plaintiffs, including activists and people suffering from pollution-related diseases, did not request compensation but tighter air quality checks.

In a hearing that took place after being adjourned eight times since May, the court ruled the officials had violated environmental protection laws and failed to combat air pollution in the capital and its satellite cities that fall under jurisdiction of Banten and West Java provinces.

“We ordered the first defendant (the president) to tighten the national air quality standard that is sufficient based on science and technology to protect humans’ health, the environment, the ecosystem, including the health of the sensitive population,” presiding judge Saifuddin Zuhri said.

The court also ordered the second defendant, the environment minister, to supervise the governors of Jakarta, Banten, and West Java in tightening transboundary emissions.

Transboundary pollution from Banten and West Java contributes to the poor and deteriorating quality of Jakarta's air. In 2018, national capital witnessed 101 days with unhealthy air, and 172 in 2019, according to the Center on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). The main contributors to PM2.5 pollution are dozens of industrial facilities and coal power plants located less than 100 kilometers from the city.

Jeanny Sirait, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs said they welcomed the verdict, even though the court did not explicitly rule the government had violated the right to clean but only contravened the law by failing to fulfill it.

"This is a breakthrough verdict," she said. "It is very rare to find judges that have environmental and public interest perspectives."
 

A train moves down its track as the hazy city skyline is seen in the background in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana) 

One of the plaintiffs, Istu Prayogi, a 56-year-old tourism lecturer who health has suffered due to air pollution told Arab News he was glad for the victory, although slightly disappointed that the officials' negligence was not classified as a human rights violation.

“We now have a hope for all people to get their rights to clean air fulfilled," he said. "We have a legal standing to oblige the government to do that, even though they should have fulfilled that in the first place, but this is a court ruling and as a rule-based country, it’s the highest order.”

Another plaintiff and environmental activist Khalisah Khalid said the verdict was also an example that court can be an avenue for citizens who seek justice.

“As plaintiffs and regular citizens, we will continue to monitor the defendants to make changes in the government policies as mandated by the verdict," she said. "It is for everyone’s interests, health, and safety including our future generations to have a good quality of life."


‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy
Updated 17 September 2021

‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy
  • China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years
  • But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace

SYDNEY, Australia: A quick barrage of missile tests and bumper defense deals in the Pacific have highlighted a regional arms race that is intensifying as the China-US rivalry grows.
“There’s a little frenzy in the Indo-Pacific of arming up,” said Yonsei University professor John Delury. “There’s a sense of everyone’s doing it.”
Within 24 hours this week, North Korea fired off two railway-borne weapons, South Korea successfully tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Australia announced the unprecedented purchase of state-of-the-art US nuclear-powered submarines and cruise missiles.
A remarkable flurry, but indicative of a region spending apace on the latest wonders of modern weaponry, experts say.
Last year alone, the Asia and Oceania region lavished more than half a trillion US dollars on its militaries, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“You’ve really seen an upward trend for the last 20 years,” the institute’s Lucie Beraud-Sudreau told AFP. “Asia is really the region where the uptick trend is the most noticeable.”
She points to a perfect storm of rapid economic growth — which puts more money in the government kitties — and changing “threat perceptions” in the region.

China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years, turning the People’s Liberation Army into a modern fighting force.
Beijing now spends an estimated $252 billion a year — up 76 percent since 2011 — allowing it to project power across the region and directly challenge US primacy.
But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace.
Michael Shoebridge, a former Australian defense intelligence official, now with the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, believes that spending is a direct reaction to China.
“The actual military competition is between China and other partners that are wanting to deter China from using force,” he said.
“That reaction has just grown, particularly since Xi (Jinping) has become leader. He’s clearly interested in using all the power that China gains fairly coercively and aggressively.”
Today around 20 percent of the region’s defense spending is on procurement, notably on maritime assets and long-range deterrence designed to convince Beijing — or any another adversary — that the cost of attack is too high.

File photo showing the USS Florida Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine launching a Tomahawk cruise missile during Giant Shadow in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas. (US Navy photo via AFP))

Shoebridge points to Australia’s landmark decision Thursday to acquire at least eight US nuclear-powered submarines and an unspecified number of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“They’re all focused on raising the cost to China of engaging in military conflict. They’re a pretty effective counter to the kinds of capabilities the PLA has been building.”
But even South Korean spending “is as much driven by China as North Korea,” he said. “There’s no explanation for (Seoul’s decision to build) an aircraft carrier that involves North Korea.”
Similarly, “India’s military modernization is clearly driven by China’s growing military power,” Shoebridge added.
For its part China — fond of describing its relationship with the United States as “great power rivalry” — accuses the United States of fueling the arms race.
In the words of state-backed tabloid the Global Times, Washington is “hysterically polarizing its alliance system.”
If fear of China is the driving force behind regional defense spending, then the United States has appeared happy to speed the process along, actively helping regional allies to beef up.
As China and Japan were “blazing forward” with defense programs, Delury says Washington has been “aiding and abetting” allies “in the name of deterring China.”
“We’re not seeing arms control here, we’re seeing the opposite,” he said.


Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave
Updated 17 September 2021

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave
  • Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states

MIAMI: Florida surpassed 50,000 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began, health officials reported Thursday, with more than one fourth of those succumbing this summer as the state battled a fierce surge in infections fueled by the delta variant.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallied 50,811 deaths after adding more than 1,500 COVID-19 deaths provided Thursday by the state’s health department. Those reported deaths occurred over various dates in recent weeks.
Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states, the CDC says. New Jersey, Mississippi and New York have had the worst, but Florida has risen from the 17th spot in the past two weeks.
Overall, about one in every 400 Florida residents who were alive in March 2020 has since died of COVID-19. Only cancer and heart disease have killed more Floridians during that period, according to state health department statistics. Those have each killed about 70,000 Floridians.
Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke somberly when asked about surpassing 50,000 COVID-19 deaths during a Fort Lauderdale news conference promoting the use of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment for people infected with the disease that reduces death and hospitalization if given early.
“It has been a really tough year and a half,” DeSantis said.
The Republican governor, who has advocated against mask and vaccine mandates, said the most recent wave, which began in June, has struck younger and healthier people. Numerous police officers and firefighters have died from the disease.
“It is affecting families in ways that we are not used to, so it has been really, really rough,” DeSantis said. Out of about 50 people present at the news conference, DeSantis was the only one who did not wear a mask when not speaking. He has promoted vaccination and has been inoculated, but did not receive his shot publicly as many elected officials did.
Epidemiologists say the state’s rates of vaccination outpaced the national average, but it was not enough to keep the highly contagious variant at bay because of its outsized population of elderly people and low vaccination rates among younger groups they interact with.
On a per-capita basis, rural and semi-rural counties in central and north Florida were hit the hardest. Most of those counties have vaccination rates that are at or below the statewide average of 63 percent of residents 12 and older. Florida counts someone as vaccinated if they have received at least one dose, even though both the Pfizer and Moderna versions both require two doses to be fully effective.
Monroe County, which consists mostly of the Florida Keys, has seen the fewest deaths per capita — one for every 1,115 residents and one of the highest vaccination rates. Another tourist mecca, Orange County, home to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, had the third-lowest per capita death count.
Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, and Leon County, home to the state capital Tallahassee and Florida State University, have been the second- and fourth-least deadly places.
Now, weeks since infections peaked, the state has seen steep drops in hospitalizations and infections. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals finally dropped below the 10,000 mark on Thursday with 9,917 patients, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That number reached more than 17,000 COVID-19 people on Aug. 23.
The number of new cases per day is now averaging 12,200, down from 21,700 in mid August.
Deaths are expected to continue to climb for late August and early September because of the way they are logged in Florida and the lags in reporting.


France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal

France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal
Updated 17 September 2021

France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal

France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal
  • “It’s a stab in the back”: French FM Jean-Yves Le Drian
  • Diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies

PARIS: France accused US President Joe Biden on Thursday of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump after Paris was pushed aside from a historic defense export contract to supply Australia with submarines.

The United States, Britain and Australia announced they would establish a security partnership for the Indo-Pacific that will help Australia acquire US nuclear-powered submarines and scrap the $40 billion French-designed submarine deal.

“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr.Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”

It is the latest dramatic twist in a contest that has seen naval shipbuilding powers battle for years over what many observers called the world’s largest single arms export deal.

In 2016, Australia had selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines.

Just two weeks ago, the Australian defense and foreign ministers had reconfirmed the deal to France, and French President Emmanuel Macron lauded decades of future cooperation when hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in June.

“It’s a stab in the back. We created a relationship of trust with Australia and that trust has been broken,” Le Drian said.

French relations with the United States soured during the presidency of Trump, who often irritated European allies by demanding they increase their defense spending to help NATO while reaching out to adversaries like Russia and North Korea.

Diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies.

The French Embassy in Washington said it was canceling a gala event related to French-US ties on Friday following the day’s events.

France’s ties with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have also soured over the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Washington’s actions in Australia are likely to further strain transatlantic ties, political analysts said. The European Union was due to roll out its Indo-Pacific strategy on Thursday and Paris is poised to take on the EU presidency.

“This is a clap of thunder and for many in Paris a Trafalgar moment,” Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Paris-based think tank the Foundation of Strategic Research said on Twitter, referring to a French naval defeat in 1805 that was followed by a long period of British naval supremacy.

He said it would “complicate the transatlantic cooperation in and about the region. Beijing will benefit.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said France was a “vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region and that Washington would continue to cooperate with Paris, comments that appeared aimed at calming French anger.

Those comments are likely to fall on deaf ears in the immediate term.

A French official said they had not been informed of the deal until a few hours before it was announced and that Paris would not fooled by platitudes.

Morrison said Australia looked forward to continuing to work “closely and positively” with France, adding: “France is a key friend and partner to Australia and the Indo-Pacific.”

‘JAW-DROPPING’

It is the second setback to French defense exports in three months after Switzerland spurned Dassault’s Rafale to buy US-made Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters.

Analysts said the loss of the much bigger submarine contract was a significant blow to France, whose experienced arms sales machine had gone all out to wrest the submarine deal from likely winner Japan under then defense minister Le Drian in 2016.

Germany had also been in the race.

The 2016 win came a decade after France radically overhauled the way it handled arms sales following Paris’ embarrassment over the loss of a contest to sell fighters to Morocco.

Word of its cancelation dominated Europe’s largest arms fair in London where one delegate called it “jaw-dropping.”

France’s Thales, which analysts say stood to gain about $1 billion from sales of sonars and optronics — the eyes and ears of the French submarines — swiftly reassured investors its 2021 finances would not be hit.

But some analysts warned France’s furious reaction over the Australian contract could backfire and noted there had been reports of Australian doubts over the pace of implementation.

Thales, which owns 35 percent of Naval Group, remains Australia’s biggest local defense contractor through a subsidiary.

“Betrayal is the wrong language and hurts France’s position in Australia; it can poison the well,” said UK-based defense analyst Francis Tusa, adding France would now be more reliant on selling Rafales to secure its place in the global arms market.