France cool on efforts by Australia to repair Aukus rift damage

Élysée says future talks must have substance after Canberra’s decision to cancel submarine contract

France has said any future talks between Emmanuel Macron and the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, over the fallout from Canberra’s decision to tear up a €56bn (£48bn) submarine deal will have to be “seriously prepared” and have “substance”.

The Élysée Palace has denied it is refusing to take Morrison’s calls, saying the president is “always available to talk on the phone”, but has admitted it is not in any hurry to resume contact with Canberra.

The French are furious after Australia cancelled the contract with France a fortnight ago in favour of a defence pact with the US, UK and Australia (Aukus) without warning.

Australian officials have since approached Macron for talks aimed at repairing the damage and containing the fallout but the Élysée says any contact will have to wait until it sends its ambassador, recalled in the row, back to Canberra at an unspecified date.

As the diplomatic brinkmanship continued, an Élysée official suggested Morrison’s office had made half-hearted efforts to inform Macron of its decision beforehand.

Morrison’s office had called the president on 13 September asking to speak to him the following day at 10am, but was informed the president would not be available as he would be hosting the weekly council of ministers, the source said.

The Élysée suggested a call on Thursday 15 September at 9am, but “the Australian side did not want this call to take place”. Instead, Morrison’s office reiterated the request for a call on 14 September.

When the Élysée asked what the prime minister wanted to talk about there was no reply, the official said. On 15 September, “at noon”, Macron received a letter from Morrison informing him the submarine contract with the French company Naval Group was being terminated and and that a new security pact would be announced by Morrison and the US president, Joe Biden, later that day.

The Élysée said it had received a further request to speak to Macron “a few days ago”, but had postponed any exchange until the French ambassador returned to his post.

“This conversation has to be prepared in a very serious way,” the official said. “Our ambassador will return with, let’s say, a message from France that will frame our next exchanges with PM Morrison. The president is always available to talk on the phone to Prime Minister Morrison, but you understand in the current context we need it to be a conversation of substance. We are preparing for that and the contact will take place when the time comes.”

In a long and reportedly heated exchange by telephone with Boris Johnson last week, Macron sought an explanation over why the UK had gone behind France’s back over the Aukus deal.

The official said there was no serious cooling of relations between the two countries but added: “We keep hearing Boris Johnson repeat how much he loves France and how wonderful he thinks we are, but the fact is the behaviour of the British here was not the behaviour of an ally. What worries us about the Aukus affair is less the role of Great Britain and more what we have to sort out with the US and Australia. Britain remains a close partner.”

Macron has said the Aukus pact is the signal that Europe needs to develop its own global defence and security strategy, including in the Indo-Pacific, and be less dependent on the US.

The official said France’s role in the Indo-Pacific would continue because France had “legitimate interests in the region … and a common vision for it with a number of partners, including Australia”.

“It will continue because France is in the Indo-Pacific … we have 1 million of our compatriots, 8,000 soldiers and a navy there”.

However, the official added Australia had not, in France’s view, behaved as an ally should. “That said, Australia is an important partner, including for France and all other European allies in the Indo-Pacific.”

Contributor

Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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