France recalls ambassadors to US and Australia over sub deal

Latest move marks escalation over new Aukus partnership

France has taken the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassadors to the US and Australia in the continuing backlash over a major submarine deal announced this week.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made the announcement on Friday evening as the nation's anger builds over the cancellation by Australia of a £48 billion ($90bn) contract to buy conventional French submarines.

“I have decided to immediately recall our two ambassadors to the United States and Australia to Paris for consultations,” he said.

Mr Le Drian said the decision was made upon a request from President Emmanuel Macron and will now further escalate tensions following the announcement of the deal, known as the Aukus pact.

Under the trilateral deal, the US and the UK will help the Australian navy acquire for the first time a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

On Saturday, French envoy to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault said the arms agreement between Paris and Canberra was supposed to be based “on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity."

“This has been a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership,” he 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."

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office said France's withdrawal of its representative was “regrettable”.

“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.

Mr Le Drian said the security pact was a “stab in the back” and called the move to remove the ambassadors as “justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the US.

He said the new partnership represented “consequences of which affect the very conception we have of our alliances, our partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe".

He said the cancellation by Australia of a $90bn contract to buy conventional French submarines in favour of nuclear-powered subs built with US technology is “unacceptable behaviour”.

On Saturday, Peter Ricketts, a former permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office and former UK ambassador to France, said the UK should also expect to face repercussions from France.

“Don’t underestimate reaction in Paris," he tweeted.

"It’s not just anger but a real sense of betrayal that UK as well as US and Australia negotiated behind their backs for six months. I lived the rupture in 2003 over Iraq. This feels as bad or worse.”

Lord Ricketts descried the recall as "unprecedented".

“Unprecedented between allied nations? Interestingly not from UK. A signal Paris regards Washington and Canberra as ringleaders in plot, with London as accomplice," he said.

"Expect further French measures targeting interests of all three.”

On Friday, a top French diplomat told The Associated Press that relations with the US are in “crisis”.

The diplomat, who spoke anonymously in line with customary government practice, said, for Paris, “this is a strategic question concerning the very nature of the relationship between Europe and the United States about the Indo-Pacific strategy".

He would not speculate on the effects the situation would have on France’s relationship with the US.

“There’s a crisis,” he stressed.

The US State Department on Friday confirmed to The National the US is in "close contact" with France.

"We understand their position," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

"France is a vital partner and our oldest ally, and we place the highest value on our relationship."

Mr Price said the US is aiming to continue talks with senior French officials.

"We hope to continue our discussion on this issue at the senior level in coming days, including at [the UN General Assembly] next week, in line with our close bilateral partnership and commitment to cooperation on a range of issues, including the Indo-Pacific," he said.

Mr Macron has not commented on the issue since President Joe Biden’s announcement of a strategic Indo-Pacific alliance with Australia and Britain, leading France to lose a deal to build diesel-electric submarines.

France has pushed for several years for a European strategy to boost economic, political and defence ties in the region, which stretches from India and China to Japan and New Zealand. The EU unveiled this week its plan for the Indo-Pacific.

Mr Le Drian on Thursday expressed “total incomprehension” at the move and criticised both Australia and the US.

“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.”

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Aukus was “not intended to be adversarial toward any other power”.

"It merely reflects the close relationship that we have with the United States and with Australia, the shared values that we have and the sheer level of trust between us that enables us to go to this extraordinary extent of sharing nuclear technology in the way that we are proposing to do," he said.

France has also cancelled a gala due to be held on Friday in the US to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Chesapeake Bay.

The crucial naval battle in the American Revolutionary War saw the French fleet defeat the British in 1781.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: September 18th 2021, 4:51 PM
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