France accuses US, Australia of 'lying' in escalating crisis

By: AFP      Published: 08:02 AM, 19 Sep, 2021
US Australia row
File photo of French foreing minister.

France on Saturday accused Australia and the United States of lying over a ruptured Australian contract to buy French submarines, saying a grave crisis was underway between the allies.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday recalled 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 American nuclear-powered 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 European Union'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 United States 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 that aimed "to show how unhappy we are and that there is a serious crisis between us".

On Sunday, Australian Finance Minister Simon Birmingham again insisted his country had informed the French government "at the earliest available opportunity, before it became public". 

He told national broadcaster ABC that it was "always going to be a difficult decision" to cancel the French deal.

"We don't underestimate the importance now of... ensuring that we re-establish those strong ties with the French government and counterparts long into the future," he added. "Because their ongoing engagement in this region is important."

- 'The third wheel' -

Le Drian also issued a stinging response to a question over why France had not recalled its ambassador to Britain, which was also part of the security pact that led to the rupture.

"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.

- 'Resolve our differences' -

Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on Wednesday, extending American 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.

The move infuriated France, which lost a contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia that was worth Aus$50 billion ($36.5 billion, 31 billion euros) when signed in 2016.

A White House official on Friday 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. 

Le Drian had on Friday described the submarine move 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 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".

Australia had 'deep and grave concerns' over French subs: PM

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Sunday the French government would have known Canberra had "deep and grave concerns" about French submarines before the deal was torn up last week.

France is furious at Australia's decision to withdraw from a multibillion-dollar deal to build French submarines in favour of American nuclear-powered vessels, recalling its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington and accusing its allies of "lying" about their plans.

Morrison said he understood the French government's "disappointment" but said he had raised issues with the deal "some months ago", as had other Australian government ministers.

"I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack Class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest," he told a press conference in Sydney.

Morrison said it would have been "negligent" to proceed with the deal against intelligence and defence advice and that doing so would be counter to Australia's strategic interests.

"I don't regret the decision to put Australia's national interest first. Never will," he said.

Speaking to Sky News Australia earlier on Sunday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said his government had been "upfront, open and honest" with France that it had concerns about the deal, which was over-budget and years behind schedule.

Dutton said he understood the "French upset" but added that "suggestions that the concerns haven't been flagged by the Australian government just defy, frankly, what's on the public record and certainly what was said publicly over a long period of time".

"The government has had those concerns, we've expressed them, and we want to work very closely with the French and we'll continue to do that into the future," he said.

Dutton said he had personally expressed those concerns to his French counterpart, Florence Parly, and highlighted Australia's "need to act in our national interest", which he said was acquiring the nuclear-powered submarines.

"And given the changing circumstances in the Indo-Pacific, not just now but over the coming years, we had to make a decision that was in our national interest and that's exactly what we've done," he added.

Canberra was unable to buy French nuclear-powered vessels because they require charging while the American submarines do not, making only the latter suitable for nuclear-free Australia, Dutton said.

With Australia's new submarine fleet not expected to be operational for decades, Dutton said the country may consider leasing or buying existing submarines from the United States or Britain in the interim.

Australia will get the nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new defence alliance announced with the United States and Britain on Wednesday, in a pact widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.