France has expressed fury over Australia’s surprise decision to scrap a huge submarine deal in favour of nuclear-powered subs from the US, describing it as a “stab in the back” from Canberra and a strain on its friendly relationship with Washington.
“It’s really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed,” the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told France Info radio on Thursday.
The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, also expressed his disappointment, revealing that he only learned of the new alliance through the media.
“This alliance we have only just been made aware and we weren’t even consulted,” he said. “As high representative for security, I was not aware and I assume that an agreement of such a nature wasn’t just brought together overnight. I think it would have been worked on for quite a while.”
“We regret not having been informed – not having been part of these talks,” Borrell said. “We weren’t included, we weren’t part and parcel of this.”
The announcement of a US, UK and Australia defence pact brought an abrupt and unexpected end to France’s A$90bn (£48bn) submarine contract with Australia, which was signed in 2016.
It is setback for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, not just in financial terms but also to French diplomacy, which had worked for years to secure the partnership with Australia and strengthen its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
A French official said discussions on the matter had taken place today between France and Australia, and France and the US on a ministerial level.
Le Drian said: “I’m very angry today, and bitter ... this is not something allies do to each other.”
He added: “This unilateral, sudden and unforeseeable decision very much recalls what Mr Trump would do,” referring to the previous US president who exasperated Europe with unpredictable decision-making.
Asked by journalists if Paris had been “duped” by Washington over what Le Drian once called a “contract of the century” for France’s naval yards, the minister replied: “Your analysis of the situation is more or less correct.”
The move by the US, UK and Australia underscores increasing concerns about China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, where France is also looking to protect its interests, which include the overseas territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia. France is the only European country with a presence in the region, with nearly 2 million French citizens and more than 7,000 troops.
Le Drian said France and its allies had been working on a “coherent and structured Indo-Pacific policy” in the face of Beijing’s growing regional might.
“We had been discussing that with the United States just recently, and here comes this break,” Le Drian said, calling it “a huge breach of trust”.
“We’ll need clarifications. We have contracts – the Australians need to tell us how they intend to get out of them,” he added.
The French defence minister, Florence Parly, called Australia’s about-face “very bad news with regards to keeping one’s word”, adding that France is “clear-eyed as to how the United States treats its allies”.
“In terms of geopolitics and international relations, it’s serious,” she told RFI radio on Thursday.
Both ministers appeared on TV and radio in France on Thursday morning after issuing an angry communique overnight. In their joint statement, the French foreign and defence ministries condemned the move as contrary to “the letter and spirit of the cooperation” between France and Australia.
They had harsh words for Washington, saying: “The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.”
Parly and Le Drian denounced the “regrettable” move by Canberra, saying it underscored the need to bolster “a European strategic autonomy”.
“There is no other credible way to defend our interests and our values in the world, including in the Indo-Pacific,” they said.
Biden, in an attempt to placate Paris, said France was a “key partner and ally” in the Asia-Pacific region.
Macron is due to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, later on Thursday, where discussions were already scheduled to include European defence. Macron has repeatedly said Europe needs to develop its own strategic and defence capabilities to be less reliant on the US.
The UK said it had not sought to antagonise France, which has a key defence cooperation with the UK. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, acknowledged French “frustration” over the agreement but insisted Britain had not sought to disrupt Paris’s relationship with Australia.
“We didn’t go fishing for these opportunities, fundamentally the Australians made a decision they wanted a different capability,” he told Sky News. “We have no intention of doing anything to antagonise the French – the French are some of our closest military allies in Europe.”
Borrell, whose announcement of an EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific region was overshadowed by the development, said Brussels was keen for closer cooperation with the UK but that they were being met with reluctance in London.
“You need two to dance the Tango - but on our part we are ready to dance,” he said.
He added that the alliance highlighted the need for the EU to strengthen its autonomy of action around the world and that the deal would be discussed by leaders in the coming weeks and months.
France is seven months from a presidential election where Macron is expected to run for re-election and political opposition groups seized on the abrupt ending of the submarine contract to attack the government.
The far-right’s Marine Le Pen called it “a political disaster” and “a public humiliation” for France, as well as a “very serious attack on its image as an industrial power”.
Benoît Arrivé, the Socialist mayor of Cherbourg, told Agence France-Presse it was an “industrial and human disappointment” and “a real slap in the face for French foreign policy”.