France has said Australian military officials sent them a letter confirming they were “extremely satisfied” with French submarines just hours before they announced the €56bn (£48bn) contract would be cancelled in favour of a US, UK and Australia defence pact.
The submarines crisis – in which France said it was “stabbed in the back” by the sudden announcement of a deal between the US, Australia and the UK to form an Indo-Pacific security group – had plunged the Paris-Washington relationship into its most acute crisis since the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Talks took place in New York on Thursday between the French and US foreign ministers after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the US president, Joe Biden, held a phone conversation on Wednesday to end a five-day standoff and France agreed to return its ambassador to the US next week.
But Macron has yet to take a call from the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison. The French company Naval Group is also to send a detailed invoice to Australia in the coming weeks for abruptly and unexpectedly cancelling its submarine contract, its chief executive said on Thursday.
Hervé Grandjean, the French ministry of defence spokesperson, told French television this week: “On the same day that President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison made the announcement, the defence ministry and Naval Group received an official letter, a letter with an official stamp on it, from the Australian navy.”
He said this came from the defence ministry and a senior official – “the admiral who is overseeing the project” – telling France he had “taken a close look at the state of progress in the contract, in line with the contract, and was extremely satisfied that performance of the French submarine was excellent, which clearly means that we were to move to the next phase of the contract”.
Grandjean added that the announcement that same evening of a US-Australia deal showed the lack of preparation about the decision, which he said was probably made within “a tiny circle” in Canberra.
The Australian government confirmed it had sent the letter to Naval Group on Wednesday last week, but played down its significance.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Defence said: “On 15 September 2021, Naval Group was advised that the formal exit of a system review had been achieved as required under the contractual arrangements in place at the time.”
The spokesperson added: “This correspondence did not refer to or authorise commencement of the next phase of the programme, which remained subject to the announcement of decisions by the Australian government.”
The Australian opposition – despite offering conditional support to the government’s decision to change course – accused Morrison of failing to do the “diplomatic legwork” ahead of the announcement.
Penny Wong, the Senate leader of the centre-left Labor party, said the revelations about the letter showed why France and other countries “might have doubts over whether Mr Morrison can be trusted as an honest partner”.
“France ought to have been shown the due respect of a partner with shared Indo-Pacific interests,” Wong said in a speech on Thursday, adding that Morrison was now in “damage control”.
There is still no indication of France making up with Australia, which says its decision to opt for more capable nuclear-powered submarines was driven by growing concerns about the security outlook in the Indo-Pacific – widely understood to mean China’s rising military might.
An Élysée official said no decision has been made on the French ambassador’s return to Canberra while no call has been scheduled with Morrison.
Speaking in Washington DC late on Wednesday, Morrison said he had requested a call with Macron but this had not yet been taken up. Morrison said he understood France’s “hurt and disappointment” but the Australian government had to “do what is right for Australia’s national security interests”.
Morrison said he did not believe “there was any other way that such news could be made more attractive”. He maintained his claim that he had told Macron in mid-June “that Australia had very big concerns about the capability of the conventional submarine and its ability to meet the strategic environment that Australia would have to operate in”.
However, after a joint meeting in late August, France and Australia issued a statement saying ministers from both sides “underlined the importance of the future submarine program”.
Morrison said: “I look forward to engaging again with President Macron – I know there will be some time before that occurs, but we will patiently pursue those opportunities because we want to work together.”