CANBERRA – France's foreign minister on Saturday denounced what he called the “duplicity, disdain and lies” surrounding the sudden rupture of France's lucrative contract to make submarines for Australia in favor of a U.S. deal and declared that a crisis is at hand among the Western allies.
A day after France recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pummeled what he suggested was a backroom deal that betrayed France.
The recalling of its ambassadors “signifies the force of the crisis today” between the French government and Washington and Canberra, he said in an interview on France 2 television. He said it was the first time ever that France, the United States' oldest ally, has recalled its ambassador to the U.S.
The announcement by President Joe Biden of the deal, alongside the leaders of Australia and Britain, for at least eight nuclear-powered submarines has set France in a fury. The French had signed a contract in 2016 for a dozen conventional diesel-electric submarines and the work to make them was already underway. The deal with French majority state-owned Naval Group was worth at least $66 billion.
Diplomatic niceties have gone out the window as French authorities seek to make their anger known.
Le Drian denied reports that there had been advance consultations with France ahead of the announcement, saying “this isn't true.”
Allies “don't treat each other with such brutality, such unpredictability, a major partner like France ... So there really is a crisis,” Le Drian said.
“There are reasons for us to question the strength of our alliance,” Le Drian said.
Earlier, France's ambassador to Australia also strayed from diplomatic language when describing what has been widely billed in France as the “contract of the century.”
“This has been a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership,” French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault said before flying home to France.
The arms agreement between France and Australia, signed in 2016, was supposed to be based “on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity,” a fuming Thebault said. “I would like to be able to run into a time machine and be in a situation where we don’t end up in such an incredible, clumsy, inadequate, un-Australian situation.”
He said he found out about the canceled contract in the Australian press.
Le Drian said in a written statement Friday that the French decision to recall its ambassadors — at the request of President Emmanuel Macron — “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
What French officials have called a complex, multi-layered contract was about more than submarines. It was the underpinning for France's vision of the critical Indo-Pacific region, where France has a presence and China is looking to bolster its influence.
The Naval Group said in a statement that consequences of the contract cancelation would be analyzed with Australia “in the coming days.” It noted that teams in France and Australia have been at work on the project for the past five years.
Australian employees working with Naval Group and their families have set up home in the Normandy port of Cherbourg. A union official, David Robin, told BFMTV that employees were informed there may be an option to keep them on.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office earlier had issued a statement responding to the diplomat’s recall and noting Canberra’s “regret” over its ally’s withdrawal of its representative.
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” the statement said. It added that Australia values its relationship with France and looked forward to future engagements together.
Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their U.S. counterparts and their first with Biden’s administration.
After the U.S. deal was made public this week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told Macron in June that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison has not specifically referred to China’s massive military buildup, which has gained pace in recent years.
Morrison was in Paris on his way home from a Group of Seven nations summit in Britain where he had talks with soon-to-be-alliance partners Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Thebault said he had also been at the meeting with Macron and Morrison.
Morrison mentioned “there were changes in the regional situation,” but gave no indication that Australia was considering changing to nuclear propulsion, Thebault said.
“Everything was supposed to be done in full transparency between the two partners,” he added.
Senior Australian opposition lawmaker Mark Dreyfus called on the Australian government to fix its relationship with France.
“The impact on our relationship with France is a concern, particularly as a country with important interests in our region,” Dreyfus said. “The French were blindsided by this decision and Mr. Morrison should have done much more to protect the relationship."