Amid the diplomatic row between Paris and Canberra triggered by the AUKUS security alliance, Australia’s PM Scott Morrison has repeatedly defended the decision to scrap a billion-dollar deal on conventionally-powered subs with France in favour of building nuclear-propelled ones using the tech of the trilateral pact’s partners – the US and UK.
France has slammed Australia for “lying” about its intentions regarding the now-scrapped conventionally-powered submarine deal with Paris worth tens of billions of dollars, reported The Guardian.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was cited as telling a Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces Committee of the Parliament’s upper house that France had never expressed doubts about the submarine contract before ditching it in favour of building a new class of nuclear attack submarines with the help of American and British nuclear reactor technology.
According to Le Drian, Naval Group, majority owned by the French government, had received a letter on the same day the contract was ditched, saying Australia was “satisfied” with the strategic review of the submarines and was ready for the “rapid signature for the second phase of the programme”.
“Everything I have told you is confirmed by the letter I received on 15 September from the Australian ministry of defence that said everything is OK, let’s continue,” Le Drian was quoted as saying.
The French Foreign Minister suggested “someone lied”, adding: “Something doesn’t add up and we don’t know what.”
Tensions continue to flare between the two countries in the wake of the AUKUS pact announcement on 15 September that resulted in Canberra breaking the contract first announced in 2016 with the French contractor Naval Group.
Canberra’s decision to abandon the multibillion submarine contract was met with “stupor” in Paris, said the French Foreign Minister. France’s Armed Forces Ministry spokesman Herve Grandjean went on Twitter on Tuesday to similarly point to the letter in question as having stated that Australians “were satisfied with the submarine’s achievable performance and with the progress of the program”.
According to The Guardian, a spokesman for the Australian government confirmed that the letter had been sent, but noted that “this correspondence did not refer to, or authorise, commencement of the next phase of the programme, which remained subject to the announcement of decisions by the Australian government.”
On 16 September, Naval Group issued a statement concerning the matter, saying that the submarine deal fall-out was “a major disappointment” for the company “which was offering Australia a regionally superior conventional submarine with exceptional performance.” The letter in question has not been publicly released, according to the outlet, with a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Defence downplaying its significance.
“On 15 September 2021, Naval Group was advised that the formal exit of a system review had been achieved as required under the contractual arrangements in place at the time… This correspondence did not refer to or authorise commencement of the next phase of the program, which remained subject to the announcement of decisions by the Australian government,” the spokesperson was cited by The Guardian as saying.
‘Breaking of Trust’
Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has referred to the move by Canberra as “betrayal” and a “stab in the back”, repeated that what was at stake was more than a commercial contract as it pertained to the broader strategic relationship between the two countries.
According to the French FM, Australia had “asked for conventional submarines” as opposed to nuclear-powered ones.
“These are the facts and they speak for themselves,” said Le Drian at the hearing, while underscoring that AUKUS would represent a “total loss of sovereignty” for Australia.
“It is not just the breaking of a contract, it is a betrayal and a breaking of trust… The effect is that Australia has abandoned its sovereignty and made a leap into the unknown with the choice of technology it doesn’t control and won’t control in the future. This puts it at the mercy of US politics,” Le Drian is cited as saying.
According to the minister, the French ambassador would return to Australia “when we have had a review”. France had recalled its envoys to the US and Australia “to show the gravity of this treason and breach of trust”. Philippe Etienne, the French ambassador to the US, returned to Washington on 29 September after being away for nearly two weeks.
Jean-Yves Le Drian emphasised that France had the support of the European Union on the issue, adding that Brussels was aware of “what is at stake.”
“This is a strategic European crisis,” warned Le Drian.
While acknowledging France’s “disappointment”, Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has maintained his decision was prompted by his country’s national security. The deal with France “would not have done the job that Australia needed to be done,” he stated on Face the Nation.
An Élysée official was cited as saying any future talks between Emmanuel Macron and Morrison would have to be “seriously prepared” and have “substance”.