France’s ambassador to Australia has accused Canberra of acting with deceit when it abruptly cancelled a multibillion-dollar deal with Paris to build a fleet of conventional submarines.
Jean-Pierre Thebault said on Wednesday that Australia’s decision in September to scrap the agreement with France’s Naval Group – after it unveiled a new trilateral security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom – was a “stab in the back”.
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Under the terms of its new alliance with Washington and London, dubbed AUKUS, Australia has opted to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with US and British technology instead of buying French-made vessels.
“The deceit was intentional,” Thebault told reporters at an address to Australia’s National Press Club in Canberra, in his first remarks since he and France’s envoy to the United States were recalled over the row.
“And because there was far more at stake than providing submarines, because it was a common agreement on sovereignty, sealed with the transmission of highly classified data, the way it was handled was a stab in the back,” he said.
Thebault, who returned to the capital last month, said the moves by Australia were not “things which are done between partners – even less between friends”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to refute Thebault’s comments.
“Claims were made and claims were refuted, what is needed now is for us to move on,” Morrison told reporters in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, where he stopped off en route to Australia after attending the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said Morrison had lied to him over the AUKUS dealings.
Morrison has denied the claim. He said he had previously explained to Macron that conventional submarines would no longer meet Australia’s needs.
The usually close diplomatic relationship between Paris and Canberra was tested further this week after Australian media published a leaked message between Morrison and Macron that attempted to counter France’s claim that Australia did not give it sufficient warning that the contract would be cancelled.
Thebault said the leak was an “unprecedented new low” which sent a worrying signal to heads of state that confidential correspondence could one day be “weaponised against you”.
Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said Macron was wrong to accuse Morrison of lying.
“We had a major political leader call the prime minister of Australia a liar, and you can’t do that diplomatically,” Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
US President Joe Biden said last week that the handling of the new pact had been “clumsy“, explaining that he had understood France was informed of the contract cancellation before the new pact was announced.