France recalls envoys to Australia, US in standoff

  • The rare decision taken by French President Emmanuel Macron was made due to the “exceptional gravity” of the matter, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.
The move infuriated France, which lost the contract worth $36.5 billion when signed in 2016.(AFP)
The move infuriated France, which lost the contract worth $36.5 billion when signed in 2016.(AFP)
Published on Sep 19, 2021 12:57 AM IST
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Agencies | , Paris/canberra/washington

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 French-designed submarine contract with Canberra.

The rare decision taken by French President Emmanuel Macron was made due to the “exceptional gravity” of the matter, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.

On Thursday, Australia said it would scrap a $40-billion deal signed in 2016 for 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.

The abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project that Australia and France had been working on since 2016 constituted “unacceptable behaviour among allies and partners”, Le Drian said.

“Their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe,” he added.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden announced the defence alliance which is widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.

The move infuriated France, which lost the contract worth $36.5 billion when signed in 2016.

Australia said on Saturday morning it regretted the recall, and that it valued the relationship with France and would keep engaging with Paris on other issues. “Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” a spokesperson for foreign affairs minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

Payne and defense minister Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their U.S. counterparts and their first with President Joe Biden’s administration.

French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault said Australia never mentioned that the project could be scrapped.

In an interview to Australian Broadcasting Corp., Thebault said, “We never were informed about any substantial changes. There were many opportunities and many channels. Never was such a change mentioned.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, rejected French criticism and said he had raised the possibility in talks with the French president that Australia might scrap the Naval Group deal.

Morrison 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 said in an interview on Friday. “I made it very clear that this was a matter that Australia would need to make a decision on in our national interest.”

Expressing “regret” over the French envoy’s recall, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that France was a “vital ally” and that the United States would be engaged in coming days to resolve the differences.

He added that the issue would be discussed “at the senior level”, including at the United Nations General Assembly next week, which both Le Drian and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby meanwhile acknowledged that telephone talks earlier between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and French counterpart Florence Parly showed “that there is still much work to do in terms of our defence relationship with France”.

The French foreign ministry statement made no mention of Britain, but a 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.

The strain in multilateral ties comes as the United States and its allies seek additional support in Asia and the Pacific given concern about the rising influence of a more assertive China.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried on Thursday to calm the French outcry, calling France a vital partner in the region. France meanwhile called off a gala at its ambassador’s house in Washington scheduled for Friday.

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Sunday, December 05, 2021