It's easy to laugh at recent plans for later Ariane 6's to have a fly back booster that looks what we in the UK call 'Heath Robinson' and in the USA, 'Rube Goldberg'.
But how many also thought the same about Musk's ideas, landing boosters on legs, on drone ships etc?
Too true, but I think there is a huge difference: Ariane is dominated by politics. Not just majorly influenced, but totally dominated. Every technology decision is not based on what is most technologically or commercially feasible, but on which country already has the skills and knowledge to build it in order to maintain the work share between the participating countries. For example the liquid vs. solid fuel decision. That's an extremely inefficient and slow way for a high tech project to work; and it is no surprise at all that an agile private company like SpaceX is outperforming Ariane so badly because of it.
If you think about it, it's the same reason why Airbus underperforms when compared to Boeing.
Boeing (and other US defense contractors) controls the politicians by putting work share in their districts. They leverage this for tax breaks and other benefits. If those breaks expire, Boeing can move somewhere else.
Airbus on the other hand is controlled by the politicians. The work share is allocated purely to maintain the status quo between the four involved countries. Airbus gets no direct benefit out of this but, quite on the contrary, gets to suffer all the negatives that arise from this, from language based working groups (some even doing the same work at the same time just because they can't work together for language reasons) and more. Airbus is one of the least agile corporations in the world due to this, and the same applies to Ariane in extension.
I think you are better describing the Airbus of years ago, not today. They've come from nowhere to level with Boeing, within 30 years, you don't do that because of subsidies, by that logic Soviet, now Russian designed airliners should be far more common, in many more markets than they are.
Boeing are not short of friendly taxation and subsidies, some more direct than others, in more recent programs, like the 787, this includes aid from Japanese and Italian taxpayers to name two. Really, the Europeans and US go about getting the same results by some different but also some not so different methods. Oddly enough though, the Airbus companies seem to have better industrial relations, fewer strikes, than Boeing. And Airbus is HQ'd and has the hub of it's operations in France of all places!
One of Ariane 5's last launches will be the James Webb Space Telescope, presumably they had to bid for this, a high profile contract, against established US launch providers. This of course was pre Space X and other oncoming companies.
I remember seeing live Ariane 5's first ever launch, with a payload, in 1996. It blew up and seemed to be a possibly terminal blow to the program'
But they went on to become the market leader, for such a supposedly mediocre rocket, that's some achievement, the majority of the payloads were commercial. Not blowing up any more must have helped with the marketing.
But it also reminded me of all that footage of US rockets blowing up, as seen replayed so often over the years. But the US rightly carried on, these were vital to national importance after all.
If the nations that make up the builders and therefore funders of Ariane, deem it's retention to also have security benefits, whatever the economic case might be into the future, they'll carry on too.
Loose talk from the current US administration, well threats really, of trade wars and actions (against allies) for not bending to their will, is a good advert for retaining a launch capability.
Plus it's also a good idea, for space, both in commercial and scientific applications, to have as many launch options as possible, as each rocket, of any kind, is only as good as it's last successful launch. If a class of rocket gets grounded for any length of time, well look what happened with STS, then both Space X and Antares had failures in the same year IIRC.