Australia ‘regrets' French ambassador recall but makes no apology for new subs deal

© Getty French President Emmanuel Macron, center, and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison wave to reporters before a working dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris earlier this year.

The federal government has hit back at criticism from France over the decision to tear up a contract to buy 12 French submarines, defending the move as in Australia’s “clear and communicated national security interests”.

As the diplomatic row between Canberra, Paris and Washington escalates, the Morrison government has also “noted with regret” the French government’s disappointment over the move, emphasising that France is an important partner it hopes to work with again.

Paris’ decision overnight to take the extraordinary step of withdrawing its ambassadors to Australia and the United States has underscored French President Emmanuel Macron’s fury over the move.

Australia now plans to buy at least eight nuclear-powered submarines that will use tecnology from the United States and United Kingdom, rather than following through on the $90 billion deal to buy 12 diesel-electric French submarines.

French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that the abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project “had linked Australia to France since 2016, and the announcement of a new partnership with the United States aimed at launching studies on possible future co-operation on nuclear-powered submarines, constitute unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners”.

In a short statement issued on Saturday morning, a spokeswoman for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said “we note with regret France’s decision to recall its Ambassador to Australia for consultations following the decision on the Attack Class [submarine] project.

“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests.

“Australia values its relationship with France, which is an important partner and a vital contributor to stability, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. This will not change.

“We look forward to engaging with France again on our many issues of shared interest, based on shared values.”

Shortly before the French announced the recall, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC that she “absolutely” understood the disappointment of the French.

“My task is to work as hard as I can … to make sure that they do understand the value we place on the role that they play and do understand the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work we want to continue to do together.”

Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said this was not the first time Prime Minister Scott Morrison had “blindsided an international partner or failed to do the diplomatic leg work before an announcement”.

“It’s about time Mr Morrison learnt to prioritise Australia’s relationships and national interest over photo ops. France is a country with shared interest in our region. The Morrison-Joyce Government must outline what steps it is taking to repair this important relationship.”

Following the first recall of a French ambassador to Washington DC in more than two centuries, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement: “We have been in close contact with our French allies. We understand their position, and we are aware of their plans to recall Ambassador Etienne to Paris for consultations.”France is a vital partner and our oldest ally, and we place the highest value on our relationship. We hope to continue our discussion on this issue at the senior level in coming days.”

The recall of Jean-Pierre Thebault, the French ambassador to Australia, and Philippe Etienne, the ambassador to the US, for “consultations” is understood to be the first in a rolling series of protests from Paris, which is furious at Australia for abandoning the contract and the US for benefiting from the switch.

Lowy Institute foreign policy expert Herve Lemahieu said the decision to dump the French boats would “take years to repair and will leave a lasting legacy of mistrust” between Australia and France.

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