France pulls Australian ambassador in 'extraordinary step'

An unprecedented diplomatic row has hardened between Paris and Canberra in the wake of a surprise deal for Australia to use US technology to build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

The announcement this week means Australia is walking away from a lucrative deal with French submarine makers.

In furious response, France has now taken its own "nuclear option".

The European power has decided to recall its ambassadors in Australia and the United States for consultations. In diplomatic terms, it has been labelled an "extraordinary step" between allies.

The move by France has been described as
The move by France has been described as "huge" and an "extraordinary step". Source: Getty

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that the rare decision taken by President Emmanuel Macron was made due to the seriousness of the event.

Mr Le Drian described Australia's sudden submarine about-face as "a stab in the back".

On Thursday, Australia said it would scrap the $90 billion (originally $55 billion) deal with France's Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and would instead build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with US and UK tech after striking a trilateral security partnership.

While details remain scarce about how and when the US-designed subs will be built, the shock deal has sent ripples throughout the international community.

Morrison declared the French deal on track just months ago

As recently as June, Mr Morrison declared the problem-plagued French deal back on track after meeting with French president during a trip to the G7.

"It was a very positive discussion. The contract is coming up to an important gate in the project,” Mr Morrison said just months ago.

“President Macron has been taking a very active role [in the project]. He and I have been discussing these issues for some time."

At the time, the French president called the deal "a pillar of our partnership and the relationship of confidence between our countries".

In contrast to Mr Morrison's pronouncements in June, he told Sunrise on Friday morning his government had been "working on this [the US deal] for over 18 months".

French President Emmanuel Macron and Scott Morrison on June 15 this year when both leaders touted the submarine deal which Australia is now walking away from. Source: Getty
French President Emmanuel Macron and Scott Morrison on June 15 this year when both leaders touted the submarine deal which Australia is now walking away from. Source: Getty

France was reportedly notified of the move just hours before a joint press conference between Australia, the UK and US on Thursday.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Politico: "We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed.

"This brutal, unilateral, unpredictable decision looks very much like what Mr Trump used to do … Allies don’t do this to each other."

France is about to take over the presidency of the European Union, which on Thursday released its strategy for the Indo-Pacific, pledging to seek a trade deal with Taiwan and to deploy more ships to keep sea routes open.

Morrison defends diplomatic fallout

The Morrison government was either caught off guard by the strength and bitterness of the French reaction, or views it as worthwhile collateral damage.

When pressed on this by Yahoo News Australia on Saturday, the prime minister's office declined to comment.

Morrison earlier acknowledged the damage to Australia-France ties but insisted he had told French President Emmanuel Macron in June it could back out of the deal.

"I made it very clear, we had a lengthy dinner there in Paris, about our very significant concerns about the capabilities of conventional submarines to deal with the new strategic environment we're faced with," Mr Morrison told 5aa Radio.

France, however, has denied this saying there was "no way such an indication was given to us" that Australia would walk away from the deal when Mr Morrison met his French counterpart.

John Blaxland, a professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the ANU, says Australia should be looking to find a creative way to fix the damage done to our relationship with France.

"I think that we need to be looking to mend bridges with the French," he told ABC on Saturday.

"Now we owe them probably about $3 billion in penalties over this broken deal," he said, adding that perhaps Australia could lease the French submarines in the near term.

"We need the subs anyway. We won't get any new subs from the Brits and the Americans for at least two decades," he said.

"Let's do something creative and mend bridges with France. France is an enduring Pacific power, let's not forget."

Australia 'notes' ambassador recall 'with regret'

While Scott Morrison has not commented on the surprise move by France to recall its ambassador, Foreign Minister Marise Payne released the following statement:

"We note with regret France’s decision to recall its Ambassador to Australia for consultations following the decision on the Attack Class project.

"Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests.

"Australia values its relationship with France, which is an important partner and a vital contributor to stability, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. This will not change.

"We look forward to engaging with France again on our many issues of shared interest, based on shared values."

with AAP

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