French anger at the Morrison government’s decision to scrap its $90bn submarine program with France continues to boil over, with the country’s recalled ambassador saying it felt “fooled” by the announcement.
Part of the still-to-be-determined arrangement will include the sharing of nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia, prompting the Morrison government to tear up its existing contract with France.
On Sunday Scott Morrison said his government had informed France’s President Emmanuel Macron that the deal was off at “around 8.30” the night before the deal was announced. But details had already leaked to the media and the French have said they felt “blindsided” by the decision.
“We discover through [the] press that the most important person of this Australian government kept us in the dark intentionally until the last minute,” Thebault told ABC radio on Monday. “This is not an Australian attitude towards France. And maybe we’re not friends.”
Thebault said the French had shared their knowledge with Australia in good faith but had been kept in the dark about Australia’s discussions with two other allied nations.
“This was a plot in the making for 18 months. At the same time while we were engaged with making the best of this [submarine] program where France committed its most well-kept military secrets … there was a complete other project that we discovered, thanks to the press, one hour before the announcement. So you can imagine our anger – we felt fooled.”
Morrison said he had raised “issues” in the contract with the French “many months ago”.
“There had been a range of issues earlier in the contract and throughout the contract that we had continued, we had discussed on numerous occasions,” he said.
“But, ultimately, this was a decision about whether the submarines that were being built, at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, were going to be able to do a job that we needed it to do when they went into service.
“And, our strategic judgment, based on the best possible intelligence and defence advice, was that it would not. And, so, therefore, to go forward, when we were able to secure a supreme submarine capability to support our defence operations, it would have been negligent for us not to.”
Thebault said the French had been the last to know. “It’s a question of principle, it’s a question of dignity and mutual respect in relations between states,” he said.
Australia’s trade minister, Dan Tehan, will touch down in Paris for meetings with his French counterpart in early October to discuss Australia’s hopes for a free trade agreement with the EU.
Thebault said “at this stage” he expected the negotiations to continue, although after the Aukus announcement France asked its fellow EU member states to “reconsider” including Australia in any free trade agreement.
So far, the two issues are being kept seperate. Tehan said he saw no reason the 12th round of talks would not continue as planned. “My hope is we will be able to over the next 12 to 18 months finalise this agreement,” he told the ABC.
But France has cancelled a UK-French defence summit in protest at the UK’s part in the Aukus deal.
Labor’s Penny Wong said the Morrison government had mishandled its relationship with an ally in how it balanced the Aukus announcement with the French contract and had failed to “minimise the effect on Australia’s national interest”.
“It is not in our national interest to make our friends so angry and so disappointed,” she said. “The French would be asking, with friends like this, who needs enemies?”