‘Deceitful’ submarines deal raises risk of confrontation, says French envoy to Australia

Aukus pact led to France's $66m weapons deal being cancelled

The French ambassador to Australia says officials in Canberra lied to his face and raised the risk of confrontation in Asia by crafting a secret submarine deal with the US and UK that undermined trust in democratic alliances.

Jean-Pierre Thebault said France was determined to protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

France complained of being humiliated after it was left out in the cold by the Aukus pact between the UK, US and Australia.

The deal, concealed from French officials, scuppered a previous $66 billion contract for Australia to buy 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines from a French manufacturer.

The French government recalled Mr Thebault to Paris last month, along with the French ambassador to the US.

The unprecedented diplomatic move reflected the depth of France’s anger at an agreement for Australia to obtain a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines built with US technology.

“The way you treat your allies does resonate in the region,” Mr Thebault said on Saturday.

“The logic of confrontation is not a good one for the peace and stability of the region. We think that we should act otherwise.”

Apart from the ruptured contract, France thinks the deal trampled long-standing alliances and that its interests in the Pacific — where it has two million citizens in French territories and 7,000 military troops — were ignored.

“I don’t understand how it was possible to commit such a lie,” Mr Thebault said of the Australian officials he worked with.

“I don’t understand how people, several of whom I know, were capable of lying to me … face to face for 18 months.”

The ambassador noted that France makes nuclear-powered submarines, and said Australia refused them when their deal was first struck in 2016, opting for diesel-powered versions instead.

“You could at least have had a frank and honest conversation, which never happened,” he said.

“Rebuffing a country like France is almost sending a message that there are trusted partners and other partners, which is worrying in a region which needs partnership, and not antagonism.”

The ambassador added that France is turning to other “trusted partners in the region” — namely India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

Strengthening the European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be a priority for France as it takes over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1, Mr Thebault said.

France last month returned its ambassador to the US, a Nato partner.

French president Emmanuel Macron and US secretary of state Antony Blinken met in Paris this week, with Mr Blinken telling French TV that “we could and we should have communicated better”.

US president Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also met his French counterpart this week. But Mr Thebault has remained in Paris.

On Wednesday, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a parliamentary committee that the ambassador would return to Australia to help “redefine the terms” of the bilateral relationship and defend French interests in winding up the contract.

Mr Thebault is expected to leave for Canberra next week.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the decision, saying the bilateral relationship was bigger than the cancelled submarine contract. But Mr Thebault suggested there is still work to do before the relationship returns to normal.

Mr Morrison said Mr Macron would not take his calls.

This week, Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan was snubbed by French officials while in Paris.

Negotiations on a free-trade deal between Australia and the EU, which were to take place this month, have been postponed until November.

Updated: October 9th 2021, 1:34 PM