PARIS (AP) – Throwing diplomatic niceties out the window, France’s ambassador to Australia on Saturday called the surprise cancellation of a multibillion-dollar submarine contract in favor of an American agreement.
Australia’s sudden break with what was widely presented in France as the “contract of the century” sparked an unprecedented outburst of anger among the allies.
“It was a huge mistake, a very, very bad management of the partnership,” French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault said before returning home to France.
Paris on Friday recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States to protest a brutally announced deal between the United States, Australia and Britain to provide Australians with a fleet of at least eight nuclear submarines.
The arms deal between France and Australia, signed in 2016, was supposed to be based “on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity,” an enraged Thebault said. “I wish I could stumble upon a time machine and be in a situation where we don’t find ourselves in such an incredible, awkward, inadequate, un-Australian situation.”
Thebault left Australia about 17 hours after the Paris announcement.
After a first burst of anger from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Paris remained silent.
Le Drian said in a written statement Friday that the French decision – at the request of President Emmanuel Macron – “is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
He said Australia’s decision to abandon a large purchase of French conventional submarines in favor of nuclear submarines built with American technology was “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners”.
What the French authorities called a complex, multi-layered contract did not only concern submarines. It was the basis of the French vision of the critical Indo-Pacific region, where France is present and China seeks to strengthen its influence.
The US agreement cancels a 90 billion Australian dollars (66 billion dollars) contract with Naval Group, majority owned by the French state, for the construction of 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.
The Naval Group said in a statement that the consequences of the cancellation of the contract would be analyzed with Australia “in the coming days”. He notes that teams in France and Australia have been working on the project for five years.
Australian Naval Group employees and their families have moved to the Normandy port of Cherbourg. A union official, David Robin, told BFMTV employees have been told there may be an option to keep them.
The office of Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne earlier issued a statement in response to the diplomat’s recall and noting Canberra’s “regrets” over the ally’s withdrawal of its ally.
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment at our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” the statement said. He added that Australia values its relationship with France and looks forward to future engagements together.
Payne and Defense Secretary Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their American counterparts and their first with President Joe Biden’s administration.
Before his recall, the French envoy Thebault said on Friday that he had discovered the agreement on American submarines: “Like everyone else, thank you to the Australian press”.
“We were never told of any substantial changes,” Thebault said. “There were many opportunities and many channels. Never has such a change been mentioned.
After the U.S. deal was made public this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told President Macron in June that there were “very real issues as to whether a conventional submarine capability “would meet Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison did not specifically refer to the massive military build-up in China that has accelerated in recent years.
Morrison was in Paris on his way back from a Group of Seven summit in Britain where he met with future alliance partners Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Thebault said he also attended the meeting with Macron and Morrison.
Morrison mentioned “that there have been changes in the regional situation”, but gave no indication that Australia was considering switching to nuclear propulsion, Thebault said.
“Everything had to be done in full transparency between the two partners,” he added.
Thebault said the difficulties with the project were normal given its scale and significant technology transfers.
Senior opposition MP Mark Dreyfus called on the Australian government to restore relations with France.
“The impact on our relations with France is a concern, especially as a country with important interests in our region,” said Dreyfus. “The French were taken aback by this decision and Mr Morrison should have done a lot more to protect the relationship.”
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