France has recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia for consultations, in a backlash over a submarine deal.
Australia on Wednesday cancelled a multibillion-dollar deal for conventional French submarines to enter a strategic Indo-Pacific alliance with the United States and Britain in which it will obtain US nuclear-powered submarines.
Calling the cancellation “unacceptable behaviour”, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement on Friday the decision to recall the envoys, on request from President Emmanuel Macron, “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
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A White House official said on Friday that the US regrets France’s decision and will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve differences between the two countries.
Australia said on Saturday it also regrets France’s decision, adding that it values its relationship with France and will keep engaging with Paris on many other issues.
“We note with regret France’s decision to recall its Ambassador to Australia,” a spokesperson for the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Australia values its relationship with France … We look forward to engaging with France again on our many issues of shared interest, based on shared values.”
The recalls from the United States and Australia, key allies of France, are unprecedented.
Earlier on Friday, a top French diplomat spoke of a “crisis” in relations with the US.
The diplomat, who spoke to The Associated Press news agency anonymously in line with customary government practice, said that for Paris “this is a strategic question concerning the very nature of the relationship between Europe and the United States about the Indo-Pacific strategy”.
He would not speculate on the effects the situation would have on France’s relationship with the US.
“There’s a crisis,” he stressed.
France has pushed for several years for a European strategy for boosting economic, political and defence ties in the region stretching from India and China to Japan and New Zealand. The European Union unveiled this week its plan for the Indo-Pacific.
The French diplomat said on Friday that Macron received a letter from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday morning announcing the decision to cancel the submarine deal.
French officials then decided to reach out to the US administration “to ask what was going on,” he said. He added that discussions with Washington took place just two to three hours before Biden’s public announcement.
Le Drian on Thursday expressed “total incomprehension” at the move and criticised both Australia and the US.
“It was really a stab in the back. We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” he said. “This is not done between allies.”
He also compared US President Joe Biden’s move to those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, under Trump’s “America First” doctrine.
Paris had raised the issue of the Indo-Pacific strategy during the June 25 visit to Paris of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, expressing the importance of its submarine programme with Australia, the diplomat said.
“We said that it was for us a very important and critical component in our Indo-Pacific strategy,” he said. Blinken met with Macron during the visit.
The French diplomat said Australia never mentioned to France before its will to shift to nuclear-powered submarines, including during a meeting between Macron and Morrison in Paris on June 15.