France recalls ambassadors to U.S., Australia over submarine deal

World

France says it is immediately recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after Australia scrapped a big French conventional submarine purchase in favour of nuclear subs built with U.S. technology

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, seen here in Weimar, Germany, on Sept. 10, says Washington's recent deal to provide nuclear sub technology to Australia was a 'stab in the back.' France was set to build diesel-electric subs for Australia worth some $100 billion US.(Jens Schlueter/The Associated Press)

France plunged into an unprecedented diplomatic crisis with the United States and Australia on Friday after it recalled its ambassadors from both countries over a trilateral security deal which sank a $40-billion French-designed submarine contract.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that the rare decision taken by President Emmanuel Macron was made due to the seriousness of the matter.

On Thursday, Australia said it would scrap the $40-billion deal with France's Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and would instead build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with U.S. and British technology after striking a trilateral security partnership. France called it a stab in the back.

A White House official said the United States regretted the French decision and that Washington had been in close touch with France over it. The official said the United States would be engaged in the coming days to resolve differences with France.

Australia's embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

'A stab in the back'

A diplomatic source in France said it was the first time Paris had recalled its own ambassadors in this way. The foreign ministry statement made no mention of Britain, but the diplomatic source said France considered Britain had joined the deal in an opportunistic manner.

"We don't need to hold consultations with our [British] ambassador to know what to make of it or to draw any conclusions," the source added.

Le Drian said the deal was unacceptable. On Thursday expressed "total incomprehension" at the move and criticized both Australia and the U.S.

"It was really a stab in the back. We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed," he said. "This is not done between allies."

Jean-Pierre Thebault, the French ambassador to Australia, said France was kept in the dark over the cancellation of the contract. He told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview recorded on Friday that Australia never mentioned that the project could be scrapped.

"We never were informed about any substantial changes," Thebault said. "There were many opportunities, there were many channels. Never was such an opportunity mentioned."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried on Thursday to calm the French outcry, calling France a vital partner in the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a virtual news conference with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday, announcing the submarine deal and a larger security partnership in the Indo-Pacific.(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Australia rejects French criticism

Earlier on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected French criticism that it had not been warned about the new deal, saying he had raised the possibility in talks with the French president that Australia might scrap the 2016 submarine deal with a French company.

Morrison acknowledged the damage to Australia-France ties but insisted he had told Macron in June that Australia had revised its thinking.

"I made it very clear, we had a lengthy dinner there in Paris, about our very significant concerns about the capabilities of conventional submarines to deal with the new strategic environment we're faced with," he told 5aa Radio.

"I made it very clear that this was a matter that Australia would need to make a decision on in our national interest."

The French announcement came as Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne was speaking at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank in Washington. She gave no sign she was aware of it.

Referring to the submarine deal, Payne said such commercial and strategic decisions were difficult to manage, but, responding to a question, she said there was "no question" that France remained a valued ally.

"I absolutely understand the disappointment," she said.

"My task is to work as hard as I can … to make sure that they do understand the value we place on the role that they play and do understand the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work we want to continue to do together."

'Historic' move

The strained ties among the long-time allies come as the United States seeks additional support in Asia and the Pacific given concern about the rising influence of a more assertive China.

France is about to take over the presidency of the European Union, which on Thursday released its strategy for the Indo-Pacific, pledging to seek a trade deal with Taiwan and to deploy more ships to keep sea routes open.

Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, called France's move "historic."

"Reassuring words such as those heard yesterday from Secretary Blinken are not enough for Paris — especially after French authorities learned that this agreement was months in the making," he said.

With files from The Associated Press

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