France recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia on Friday evening in a show of fury over Australian’s abrogation of a €56 billion contract to purchase a dozen French submarines. The recall of ambassadors is one step short of a rupture in diplomatic relations.
“At the request of the President of the Republic, I have decided to recall immediately to Paris for consultations our two ambassadors to the US and Australia,” foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.
“This decision is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on September 15th by Australia and the US.”
On late afternoon Wednesday US eastern standard time – overnight from Wednesday to Thursday in Paris – US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced the formation of a new alliance between their countries, which they christened AUKUS.
Australia will purchase US nuclear-powered submarines instead of the French diesel-powered Barracuda submarines that it signed up for in 2016, after two years of negotiations.
The Australian shift was announced in the press and in a videoconference by the three leaders without prior notification of the French. Mr Morrison did not mention France in his speech and said the submarine contract represented “not a change of opinion but a change of needs”.
China is rapidly developing its naval forces and by some measures now has the largest military fleet in the world.
Australia’s relations with Beijing have plummeted. Speaking to the press later, Mr Morrison admitted that for France, his decision was “very difficult and very disappointing”.
Australia will doubtless have to pay hundreds of millions of euros in damages to France for the broken contract, which represented 650 jobs and ten per cent of orders on the books of the Naval Group shipyard in Cherbourg.
Paris reacted extremely negatively to the news, which Mr Le Drian called “a stab in the back” and a “unilateral, brutal, unforeseeable decision which much resembles what Mr Trump did ... One doesn’t do such things among allies ... It is unbearable.”
The French embassy in Washington and a French frigate anchored in Baltimore were to have hosted a gala celebration on Friday night to mark the 240th anniversary of the “Battle of the Capes”, when the navy of revolutionary France helped US rebels defeat the British.
Paris instead cancelled the gala and brought its highest-ranking naval officer back to France.
The AUKUS alliance is the first evidence of Mr Johnson’s ability to forge new ties for “global Britain” as the UK begins to feel the negative effects of Brexit. And it is a serious blow to French hopes of matching the US “pivot” to Asia, which started under the Obama presidency.