CANBERRA – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied that he lied to French President Emmanuel Macron while secretly negotiating a submarine deal with the United States and Britain, an accusation that has escalated a rift over Australia’s surprise cancelation of a French deal.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce suggested France was overreacting, saying, “we didn’t deface the Eiffel Tower.”
Australia in September dropped the 5-year-old, 90 million Australian dollar ($66 million) contract with majority French state-owned Naval Group to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines. Instead, Australia formed an alliance with Britain and the U.S. to acquire a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines built with U.S. technology.
Macron told Australian reporters late Sunday in Rome, where both he and Morrison attended the Group of 20 nations summit, that the new alliance was “very bad news for the credibility of Australia and very bad news for the trust that great partners can have with Australia.”
Answering a reporter’s question about whether he thinks Morrison lied to him, Macron replied, “I don’t think, I know” he lied.
Morrison said he did not lie to Macron, while senior Australian government ministers criticized the French leader for escalating the dispute through the personal slight.
“We didn’t steal an island, we didn’t deface the Eiffel Tower, it was a contract,” Joyce said in the New South Wales town of Moree on Monday.
“Contracts have terms and conditions, and one of those terms and conditions and propositions is that you might get out of the contract. We got out of that contract,” Joyce added.
Joyce's office could not say whether “steal an island” was a reference to the English Channel’s tiny Sark Island, which unemployed French nuclear physicist André Gardes attempted to overthrow with an assault rifle in 1990.
The bizarre event inspired the 2013 movie, “The Man Who Tried to Steal an Island.”
Cabinet Minister David Littleproud described Macron’s criticism of Morrison as “unreasonable.”
Morrison could not reveal that the United States had offered Australia nuclear-propulsion technology when the two leaders dined together in June for national security reasons, Littleproud said.
“I was very clear that the conventional submarines were not going to be able to meet our strategic interests,” Morrison said.
Macron refused to take Morrison’s phone calls after the submarine furor broke until hours before the Australian leader was to fly to Rome last week. The pair did not hold a bilateral meeting in Rome, but Morrison said they had “spoken several times" and would likely do so more in the coming days. Both leaders will attend the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this week.
U.S. President Joe Biden told Macron last week that the U.S. had been “clumsy” in its handling of the Australian submarine alliance. Biden said he thought Macron had been informed long before the deal was announced.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, who is aiming to become prime minister after elections due by May, said Morrison’s credibility had been tarnished over the submarines controversy.
“It’s important that Australians have a leader on the world stage who is trusted on that stage, whose word can be counted,” Albanese said. “But what we see is that being drawn into question very directly by the president of France and also the president of the United States.”
Asked by a reporter if Australia could have “handled it better,” Joyce replied, “With hindsight.” He then drew an analogy to the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s best-known horse race, which will be run on Tuesday.
“If only I could put a bet on last year’s one, geez, I’d make some money,” Joyce said.
This story corrects that the deputy prime minister spoke at Moree, not Canberra.