France on Friday 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.
The rare diplomatic backlash against France’s allies came two days after Australia announced the scrapping of a major purchase of French conventional submarines in favour of US nuclear-powered submarines.
President Emmanuel Macron made the exceptional decision due to the “gravity of the announcements on September 15 by Australia and the United States”, said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a statement.
The announcement represented “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners”, said the statement.
Australia in 2016 had chosen France’s Naval Group, partly owned by the state, to build 12 conventionally powered submarines, based on France’s Barracuda nuclear-powered subs in development.
The contract was worth around 50 billion Australian dollars (€31 billion, $36.5 billion) when announced in 2016.
But on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden, along with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced a new US security alliance between their countries that would develop an Australian nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
The Australia-UK-US alliance – dubbed AUKUS – has been strongly condemned by France, with Le Drian calling it “a stab in the back”.
US describes France as ‘vital ally’
The United States on Friday reiterated that France was a ‘vital ally’.
“France is a vital partner and our oldest ally, and we place the highest value on our relationship,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement, adding that Washington was hoping to continue the discussion on the issue at the senior level in the coming days, including during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York next week.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby meanwhile acknowledged that telephone talks earlier between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and French counterpart Florence Parly showed “that there is still much work to do in terms of our defense relationship with France”.
Australia said it regrets France’s decision to recall its ambassador to Canberra but it values its relationship with France and will keep engaging with Paris on many other issues.
“We note with regret France’s decision to recall its Ambassador to Australia,” a spokesperson for the foreign ministry said in a statement. “Australia values its relationship with France … We look forward to engaging with France again on our many issues of shared interest, based on shared values.”
China calls alliance ‘extremely irresponsible’
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 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.
China has its own “very substantive programme of nuclear submarine building”, the Australian PM argued Friday in an interview with radio station 2GB.
‘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 Étienne 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.
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’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune also said Friday that Paris was unable to trust Canberra in ongoing European Union trade deal talks following the decision.
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.
AUKUS overshadows Europe’s Indo-Pacific plan
France had pushed for several years for a European strategy for boosting economic, political and defence ties in the region stretching from India and China to Japan and New Zealand.
The EU on Thursday unveiled its plan for the Indo-Pacific. But the AUKUS headlines overshadowed the EU’s own Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at “exploring ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation”, according to a statement.
A French diplomat told AFP on Friday that Macron received a letter from Australian PM Morrison on Wednesday morning announcing the decision to cancel the submarine deal.
Paris had raised the issue of the Indo-Pacific strategy during the June 25 visit to Paris of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, expressing the importance of its submarine programme with Australia, the diplomat said.
French officials then decided to reach out to the Biden administration “to ask what was going on”, the source said. He added that discussions with Washington took place just two to three hours before Biden’s public announcement.
“We said that it was for us a very important and critical component in our Indo-Pacific strategy,” he said. Blinken met with Macron during the visit.
The French diplomat said Australia never gave any indication to France before of its intention to scrap the submarine deal, including during a meeting between Macron and Morrison in Paris on June 15.