Words fly between Canberra and Paris over ruptured submarine contract

Australian PM says French ‘should have known’ country’s misgivings about submarine capabilities

Canberra announced this week it would scrap a 2016 deal with France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and instead build at least eight nuclear-powered ones with US and British technology. Video: Reuters

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US president Joe Biden has asked to speak to French president Emmanuel Macron in the midst of an acute diplomatic crisis between Washington and Paris over a new alliance of English-speaking countries and Australia’s cancellation of a contract to purchase French attack submarines.

“There will be a telephone exchange in the next few days,” a French government spokesman, Gabriel Attal, confirmed.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, summoned the ambassadors of the US and Australia on Sunday “to evoke with them the strategic consequences of the present crisis and the conclusions to be drawn from it”, said a foreign ministry statement.

France recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra on Friday night, a move unprecedented in the history of France’s relations with those countries.

It was Paris’s way of expressing anger over the formation last week of the “Aukus” alliance between Australia, the UK and US. The goal of the alliance is to confront Chinese military adventurism in the Indo-Pacific region.

As part of that agreement Australia cancelled “the deal of the century”, a 2016 contract to purchase 12 conventional submarines from France for tens of billions of euro. Australia will instead buy US nuclear-powered submarines.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrisson told journalists on Sunday that he understood French “disappointment” over the broken contract, but claimed his government expressed “deep and serious reservations” to the French months ago.

Employees at the French Naval Group in Cherbourg, which was to have built the submarines, refer to “Kangaroo turncoats”.

Contract

The French “should have known” that Australia had misgivings about the capabilities of the French submarines, Mr Morrisson said. His government had clearly indicated it would take a decision “based on our national strategic interest”. It would have been “negligent” to go ahead with the contract against advice from Australian intelligence and defence officials. Mr Morrisson said he “will never regret the decision to put Australia first”.

Also on Sunday , defence minister Peter Dutton told Sky News Australia that his government had been “frank, open and honest” with France about an agreement that was behind schedule and over-budget. French media reported that costs had risen 50 per cent since the original contract, and that an audit reported a nine-month delay.

None of this appears likely to assuage French anger. Mr Le Drian told France 2 television on Saturday night that French authorities learned about the Australian, UK and US announcement one hour before it was made.

“There were lies, duplicity, a major rupture of confidence, contemptuousness,” Mr Le Drian said. “So things are not all right between us.”

There was no point recalling the French ambassador to London, Mr Le Drian said. Alluding to Boris Johnson’s government, he added, “we know their permanent opportunism”.