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France recalls its ambassadors to US and Australia in submarine deal backlash

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France on Friday said it was immediately recalling its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultations after Australia struck a deal with the US and UK, which ended a $40 billion French-designed submarine deal.

President Emmanuel Macron made the exceptional decision due to the “gravity of the announcements on September 15 by Australia and the United States”, said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a statement.

The rare diplomatic backlash against France’s allies came two days after Australia announced the scrapping of a major purchase of French conventional submarines in favour of US nuclear-powered submarines.

The announcement represented “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners”, said the statement.

Australia in 2016 had chosen France’s Naval Group, partly owned by the state, to build 12 conventionally powered submarines, based on France’s Barracuda nuclear-powered subs in development.

The contract was worth around 50 billion Australian dollars (€31 billion, $36.5 billion) when announced in 2016.

But on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden, along with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced a new US security alliance between their countries that would develop an Australian nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

The Australia-UK-US alliance – dubbed AUKUS – has been strongly condemned by France, with Le Drian calling it “a stab in the back”.

AUKUS overshadows Europe’s Indo-Pacific plan

France had pushed for several years for a European strategy for boosting economic, political and defense ties in the region stretching from India and China to Japan and New Zealand. 

The EU on Thursday unveiled its plan for the Indo-Pacific. But the AUKUS headlines overshadowed the EU’s own Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at “exploring ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation”, according to a statement. 

A French diplomat told AFP on Friday that Macron received a letter from Australian PM Morrison on Wednesday morning announcing the decision to cancel the submarine deal. 

French officials then decided to reach out to the Biden administration “to ask what was going on”, the source said. He added that discussions with Washington took place just two to three hours before Biden’s public announcement.

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 program with Australia, the diplomat said.

“We said that is 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 gave any indication to France before of its intention to scrap the submarine deal, including during a meeting between Macron and Morrison in Paris on June 15.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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