France recalls ambassadors to Australia, US in escalating row

The Nation  |  Sep 19, 2021

PARIS - France on Saturday recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia in a ferocious row over the scrapping of a submarine contract, an unprecedented step that revealed the extent of French anger against its allies.

President Emmanuel Macron recalled the envoys after Canberra ditched a deal to buy French submarines in favour of US vessels, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Le Drian said that the decision was made to “immediately” recall the two French ambassadors due to “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on September 15 by Australia and the United States”. The abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project that Australia and France had been working on since 2016 constituted “unacceptable behaviour among allies and partners,” the minister said.

“Their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe,” he added.

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US President Joe Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on Wednesday, extending US nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities. The pact is widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.

The move infuriated France, which lost a contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia that was worth Aus$50 billion ($36.5 billion, 31 billion euros) when signed in 2016.

A White House official expressed “regret” over the French envoy’s recall but added “we will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a tweet that Washington understood France’s position and was in “close contact” with Paris. 

He added that the issue would be discussed “at the senior level”, including at the United Nations General Assembly next week, which both Le Drian and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend. 

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Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby meanwhile acknowledged that telephone talks earlier between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and French counterpart Florence Parly showed “that there is still much work to do in terms of our defence relationship with France.”

The French ambassador recalls from the United States and Australia  key allies of France  are unprecedented. Withdrawing envoys is a last resort diplomatic step taken when relations between feuding countries are plunged into crisis but highly unusual between allies.

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