France’s ambassador to Australia described Saturday as a “huge mistake” Australia’s surprise cancellation of a major submarine contract in favor of a U.S. deal, delivering a final protest as the envoy was recalled from the country in an unprecedented show of anger among the allies.
Jean-Pierre Thebault delivered his comments as he left his residence in the pandemic locked down capital of Canberra.
“This has been a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership,” Thebault said, explaining that the arms agreement between Paris and Canberra was supposed to be based “on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity.”
Paris recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States on Friday to protest a deal among the United States, Australia and Britain to supply Australia with a fleet of at least eight nuclear-power submarines.
Thebault flew out of Australia on a flight to Doha, Qatar, around 17 hours after the announcement from Paris.
The U.S. deal scraps a 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 billion) contract with French majority state-owned Naval Group, signed in 2016, to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.
“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,” the French ambassador added.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office earlier had issued a statement responding to the diplomat’s recall and noting Canberra’s “regret” over its ally’s withdrawal of its representative.
“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.
Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their U.S. counterparts and their first with President Joe Biden’s administration.
Before he was recalled, French envoy Thebault said on Friday he found out about the U.S. submarine deal: “Like everybody, thanks to the Australian press.”
“We never were informed about any substantial changes,” Thebault said. “There were many opportunities and many channels. Never was such a change mentioned.”
After the U.S. deal was made public this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told French President Emanuel Macron in June that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison has not specifically referred to China’s massive military buildup which had gained pace in recent years.
Morrison was in Paris on his way home from a Group of Seven nations summit in Britain where he had talks with soon-to-be-alliance partners Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Thebault said he had also been at the meeting with Macron and Morrison.
Morrison mentioned “there were changes in the regional situation,” but gave no indication that Australia was considering changing to nuclear propulsion, Thebault said.
“Everything was supposed to be done in full transparency between the two partners,” he added.
Thebault said difficulties the project had encountered were normal for its scale and large transfers of technologies.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement on Friday that recalling the two ambassadors, on request from Macron, “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
Le Drian said Australia’s decision to scrap the submarine purchase in favor of nuclear subs built with U.S. technology is “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners.”
Senior opposition lawmaker Mark Dreyfus called on the Australian government to fix its relationship with France.
“The impact on our relationship with France is a concern, particularly as a country with important interests in our region,” Dreyfus said.
“The French were blindsided by this decision and Mr. Morrison should have done much more to protect the relationship,” he added.