France recalls ambassadors to US and Australia over submarine deal

President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Scott Morrison Credit: AP

France has recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia and accused the UK of returning to the "American lap" amid a bitter row over a new defence deal agreed between the three nations.

The deal, which would help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines to "sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region", meant Australia cancelled a nearly $100 billion (£30 billion) contract to buy French conventional diesel-electric submarines.

Instead, the Australian navy will acquire a more capable fleet of nuclear-powered – although not nuclear-armed – vessels with US and UK assistance.

Paris reacted with fury over the announcement, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian describing it as “unacceptable behaviour.”

It is the first time ever France has recalled its ambassador to the US, according to the French foreign ministry.

Mr Le Drian said on Friday evening that the decision, on request from President Emmanuel Macron, “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements".

Jean-Pierre Thebault, the recalled French ambassador to Australia, left the French embassy in Canberra on Saturday and called the deal a "huge mistake".

Speaking to reporters, Mr Thebault said: "I would like to be able to run into a time machine and to wind it back and be in a situation where we don't end up in such an incredible, clumsy, inadequate, un-Australian situation."

'This has been a huge mistake' - French ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault

"I think this has been a huge mistake. A very, very bad handling of the partnership, because it was not a contract, it was a partnership. A partnership that's supposed to be based on trust, mutual understanding and also a partnership based, you know, on sincerity."

There was no similar order for the French envoy to London to return to Paris for consultations.But in a series of interviews with French television, Europe Minister Clement Beaune suggested it was because the UK was a "junior partner" in the deal who had obeyed the US's wishes.

“Our British friends explained to us they were leaving the EU to create Global Britain. We can see that this is a return into the American lap and a form of accepted vassalisation,” he said.

The fact that the UK's ambassador has not yet been recalled suggests France may be trying to make the UK feel like a 'bit-part' in the alliance, ITV News US Correspondent Emma Murphy reported on Friday

“The UK is clearly trying to find its feet, perhaps there was a lack of thought about the strategic future.

"Today they are hiding in the American fold. I hope that will not be their policy for the decades to come.”

He later added: “We see through this partnership, this strategic alliance and after the Kabul crisis, that Global Britain seems to be more about a US junior partner than working with different allies.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, held a televised press conference on Wednesday night, saying the deal will help "sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region".

One of the Royal Navy's seven Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarine moves through the water in Argyll and Bute. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA

The UK's Ministry of Defence said the Asia-Pacific region is "on the frontline of new security challenges", troubled by territorial disputes, nuclear proliferation and miscalculation, climate change, terrorism and serious organised crime.

Amid reports that the deal is a way to push back at the rise of the Chinese military, China has labelled the new defense deal an "irresponsible act" and raised questions about Australia's commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Australia had agreed in 2016 that France would help to build 12 conventional submarines but following the deal with America and Britain, it notified France that it would end the contract.

French President Macron has not commented on the issue since the submarine deal was announced on Wednesday.

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France has been pushing for several years for a European strategy for boosting economic, political and defense ties in Asia and the Pacific region. The EU unveiled this week its plan for the Asia-Pacific.

Mr Le Drian on Thursday branded the move a "stab in the back".

He said: "We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed and I'm angry today, with a lot of bitterness, about this breach (of contract)."This is not done between allies, especially when there's been two years of negotiations for this contract."

Announcing the security deal, Biden said the alliance will ensure a 'free and open Indo-Pacific' to build a 'future of peace, opportunity for all the people in the region':

The French diplomat said Australia had never previously mentioned to France its will to shift to nuclear-powered submarines, including during a meeting between Macron and Morrison in Paris on June 15.

Prime Minister Johnson insisted on Thursday the UK's military relationship with France remains "rock solid".

Asked by Keir Starmer in the Commons about how the new Aukus alliance would affect relations with France, Mr Johnson said: "This government's commitment to Nato is absolutely unshakeable and indeed has been strengthened by the massive commitments we have made, the biggest uplift in defence spending since the Cold War."

He said: "Our relationship with France, our military relationship with France, again, Mr Speaker, is rock solid.

The UK, US and Australia say they will spend 18 months designing and building the nuclear submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.

There has been no date set for when the submarines will begin operating, but leaders say they hope it can be achieved "at the earliest achievable date".