Australian officials lied and raised the risk of confrontation in Asia by crafting a secret submarine deal with the US and Britain that undermined trust in democratic alliances, French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault said on Friday.
France is determined to protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific region and to put “muscle” into Europe’s geopolitical strategy toward an increasingly assertive China, Thebault said in an interview before heading back to his post in Canberra.
“The way you treat your allies does resonate in the region,” Thebault said in a gilded chamber in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs building on the banks of the Seine river in Paris. “The logic of confrontation is not a good one for the peace and stability of the region. We think that we should act otherwise.”
Thebault was recalled to Paris last month along with the French ambassador to the US.
The unprecedented diplomatic move reflected the depth of France’s anger at an agreement for Australia to obtain a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines built with US technology.
The deal, concealed from French officials, scuppered a previous US$66 billion contract for Australia to buy 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines from a French manufacturer.
Beyond the ruptured contract, France feels that long-standing alliances were trampled and its interests in the Pacific — where it has 2 million citizens in French territories and 7,000 military troops — were ignored.
“I don’t understand how it was possible to commit such a lie. I don’t understand how people, several of whom I know, were capable of lying to me ... face to face for 18 months,” Thebault said of Australian officials he worked with.
France makes nuclear-powered submarines, but Australia refused them when their deal was first struck in 2016, opting for diesel-powered versions instead, he said.
“You could at least have ... had a frank and honest conversation, which never happened,” he said. “Rebuffing a country like France is almost sending a message that there are trusted partners and other partners, which is worrying in a region which needs ... partnership and not antagonism,” he said.
So France is turning to other “trusted partners in the region,” he said — naming India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Putting “muscle” in the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be a priority for France as it takes over the rotating presidency of the EU on Jan. 1 next year, he said.
“The rise of China ... is an issue that needs to be addressed,” along with climate change and its impacts on islands throughout the Pacific, he said.
He stressed the importance of “international rules, respect for human rights, the respect for freedom of navigation, respect for sovereignty of countries.”
France last month returned its ambassador to the US, a NATO partner.
French President Emmanuel Macron and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Paris this week, and Blinken told French TV that “we could and we should have communicated better.”
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met his French counterpart this week, but Thebault has remained in Paris.
On Wednesday, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian told a parliamentary committee that the ambassador would return to Canberra to help “redefine the terms” of the bilateral relationship and defend French interests in winding up the contract.
Thebault is expected to leave France next week.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the decision, saying the bilateral relationship was bigger than the canceled submarine contract.
However, Thebault suggested that there is still work to do before the relationship returns to normal.
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