France on September 18 accused Australia and the US of lying over a ruptured Australian contract to buy French submarines, saying a grave crisis was underway between the allies after Paris recalled its ambassadors.
President Emmanuel Macron on September 17 ordered back the ambassadors to Canberra and Washington in an unprecedented move to signal his fury over Australia’s decision to break a deal for the French submarines in favour of US vessels.
The row has, for now, ended hopes of a post-Donald Trump renaissance in relations between Paris and Washington under President Joe Biden and also focused French attention on boosting the EU’s security strategy as it ponders NATO’s future.
Speaking to France 2 television, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gave no indication Paris was prepared to let the crisis die down, using distinctly undiplomatic language towards Australia, the US and Britain which is also part of the three-way security pact.
“There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt,” Le Drian said. “This will not do.”
He described the withdrawal of the ambassadors for the first time in the history of relations with the countries as a “very symbolic” act which aimed “to show how unhappy we are and that there is a serious crisis between us”.
He also issued a stinging response to a question over why France had not recalled its ambassador to Britain, when London was also part of the security pact that led to the rupture of the contract.
“We have recalled our ambassadors to [Canberra and Washington] to re-evaluate the situation. With Britain there is no need. We know their constant opportunism. So there is no need to bring our ambassador back to explain,” he said.
Of London’s role in the pact under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he added with derision: “Britain in this whole thing is a bit like the third wheel.”
NATO would have to take account of what has happened as it reconsiders strategy at a summit in Madrid next year, he added.
France would make a priority now of developing an EU security strategy when it takes on the bloc’s presidency at the start of 2022, he said.
Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of NATO’s Military Committee, earlier played down the dangers, saying it was not likely to have an impact on “military cooperation” within the alliance.
Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on September 15, extending US nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber-defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.
The move infuriated France, which lost a contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia that was worth A$50 billion (US$36.5 billion) when signed in 2016.
A White House official on September 17 expressed “regret” over the French envoy’s recall but added: “We will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance.”
Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said in a tweet that Washington understood France’s position and was in “close contact” with Paris.
He added that the issue would be discussed “at the senior level”, including at the UN General Assembly this week, which both Le Drian and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend.
Le Drian had on September 17 described the contract rupture as a “stab in the back” and said the behaviour of the Biden administration had been comparable to that of Trump whose sudden changes in policy exasperated Europe.
Australia has also shrugged off Chinese anger over its decision to acquire the US nuclear-powered submarines, while vowing to defend the rule of law in airspace and waters where Beijing has staked hotly contested claims.
Beijing described the new alliance as an “extremely irresponsible” threat to regional stability, questioning Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and warning the Western allies that they risked “shooting themselves in the foot”.