France lambasts Australia, US after 'stab in back' on subs

A 2018 photo shows French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (second right) standing on the deck of HMAS Waller, a Collins-class submarine operated by the Royal Australian Navy, at Garden Island in
A 2018 photo shows French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (second right) standing on the deck of HMAS Waller, a Collins-class submarine operated by the Royal Australian Navy, at Garden Island in Sydney.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - France on Thursday (Sept 16) accused Australia of back stabbing and Washington of Donald Trump-era behaviour after Canberra scrapped a huge submarines deal with Paris for US-made nuclear subs.

"It's really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Info radio.

"I'm very angry today, and bitter... this is not something allies do to each other," he said, noting that Australia would now have to explain how it would exit the contract.

Le Drian also said conduct of the administration of President Joe Biden was reminiscent of his predecessor Trump, who exasperated Europe with unpredictable decision-making.

"This unilateral, sudden and unforeseeable decision very much recalls what Mr Trump would do," Le Drian added, describing what has happened "unacceptable" and "incomprehensible."

The White House said that US officials had held high-level talks with Paris before announcing the new contract with Australia, but a French embassy spokesman in Washington said there had been no consultations on the deal.

"We had not been informed before the first news of this deal was published in the American and Australian press, a few hours before Joe Biden's official announcement," he said.

France's Naval Group, partly owned by the state, had been chosen to build 12 conventionally-powered submarines for Australia, based on France's Barracuda nuclear-powered subs in development.

The contract was worth around A$50 billion (S$49 billion) when announced in 2016.

But Biden and the prime ministers of Australia and Britain announced on Wednesday a new defence pact that would see Canberra get a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, a privilege reserved for few American allies.

The move underscores growing concerns about China's expanding influence in the Indo-Pacific, where France is also looking to protect its interests that include the overseas territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Asked if Paris had been "duped" by Washington over what Le Drian once called a "contract of the century" for France's naval yards, the minister replied: "Your analysis of the situation is more or less correct."

He said France and its allies had been working on a "coherent and structured Indo-Pacific policy" in the face of Beijing's growing regional might.

"We had been discussing that with the United States just recently, and here comes this break," Le Drian said, calling it "a huge breach of trust".

"We'll need clarifications. We have contracts - the Australians need to tell us how they intend to get out of them," he added.

'Clear-eyed'

Defence Minister Florence Parly called Australia's about-face "very bad news with regards to keeping one's word", while adding that France is "clear-eyed as to how the United States treats its allies".

"In terms of geopolitics and international relations, it's serious," she told RFI radio on Thursday.

Parly and Le Drian had already denounced a "regrettable" move by Canberra in a statement overnight, saying it underscored the need to bolster "a European strategic autonomy."

"There is no other credible way to defend our interests and our values in the world, including in the Indo-Pacific," they said.

President Emmanuel Macron - who is due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for already scheduled talks later on Thursday - has repeatedly said that Europe needs to develop its own defence capabilities to be less reliant on the US.

Parly and Le Drian said that France retains its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region as the "only European nation" with a presence there, due to its overseas territories with nearly two million French citizens and over 7,000 troops.