France recalls ambassadors to US, Australia in row over submarines deal
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with presidential diplomatic advisor Philippe Etienne as they take part in the Cedre conference at The Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris.–AFP (File photo)
France has recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia in a ferocious row over the scrapping of a submarine contract, an unprecedented step that revealed the extent of French anger against its allies.
Le Drian said that the decision was made to "immediately" recall the two French ambassadors due to "the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on September 15 by Australia and the United States".
"Their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe," he added.
US President Joe Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on Wednesday, extending US nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.
The pact is widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.
A White House official 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."
State Department 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 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 Defence 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."
- 'Directly affecting the vision' -
The French ambassador recalls from the United States and Australia -- key allies of France -- are unprecedented. Withdrawing envoys is a last resort diplomatic step taken when relations between feuding countries are plunged into crisis but highly unusual between allies.
"I am being recalled to Paris for consultations," France ambassador to the US Philippe Etienne wrote on Twitter. "This follows announcements directly affecting the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe."
Paris sees itself as a major power in the Indo-Pacific due to overseas territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia which give it a strategic and military foothold unmatched by any other European country.
France had made no effort to disguise its fury even before the recalls and on Thursday Le Drian accused Australia of back-stabbing and Washington of Donald Trump-era behaviour over the submarines deal.
The row has for now at least put on hold hopes of a post-Trump renaissance in Paris-Washington relations under Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a fluent French speaker who was educated in Paris.
France meanwhile called off a gala at its ambassador's house in Washington scheduled for Friday.
The event was supposed to celebrate the anniversary of a decisive naval battle in the American Revolution, in which France played a key role.
- 'Extremely irresponsible' -
Australia earlier 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".
China has its own "very substantive programme of nuclear submarine building", Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued Friday in an interview with radio station 2GB.
China claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, rejecting competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing has been accused of deploying a range of military hardware including anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles there, and ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the waters to be without basis.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in Washington, said she understood the "disappointment" in Paris and hoped to work with France to ensure it understands "the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work that we want to continue to do together"