Top French envoy says sub snub was a ‘stab in the back’
France’s ambassador to Australia has labelled the dumping of the $90 billion submarine deal a “stab in the back”, accusing Prime Minister Scott Morrison of being intentionally deceitful.
France's Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault delivers his address to the National Press Club. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault slammed the government’s handling of the submarine deal, bringing into question Australia’s word on the international stage.
“What can any partner of Australia now think is the value of Australia’s signature and commitment?” he said in a National Press Club address on Wednesday.
Mr Thebault said the decision was made unilaterally by Australia and the French were not consulted despite “countless opportunities”.
“Without having shared (information) frankly and openly, or having looked for alternatives with France, is just out of this world.
“Why was it impossible earlier to state the naked truth?”
Thebault was recalled to Paris in September after Mr Morrison revealed Australia would work with the US and UK on a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS partnership.
He said he returned to Australia to “redefine the terms of our bilateral relationship considering … the major breakdown of trust with this Australian government”.
He said Australia had foregone diplomatic trust in Europe as the AUKUS announcement stands in stark contrast to Australia’s strategy to get European allies more involved in the Indo-Pacific region.
“At the time of increased uncertainty, France is the only European country with permanent and significant assets in the Indo-Pacific region, and a capacity to rapidly step up its presence.”
The ambassador also appeared to take a veiled shot at Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who on Tuesday told 2GB Australia had “factored in all along that the French were going to be upset about losing a contract of this size”.
Thebault told the press club the decision to cancel the contract should have set off “alarm bells … to the likely consequences”.
“And if it was a case and they did ring, and they were disregarded, it’s even worse,” he said.
The government was even accused of using the AUKUS announcement to make a political statement ahead of the upcoming federal election.
“Politicians and elections make an interesting mix,” Thebault quipped.
His press club address came as Mr Morrison and French President Emmanuel Macron traded blows about the timeline of the contract’s cancellation.
Mr Macron accused the prime minister of lying to him and misleading the French over how the submarine deal was proceeding in the lead up to the contract’s cancellation.
Morrison has denied misleading the French government and insists concerns about the submarine project had been raised for some time.
Communications between the two leaders have also leaked to the media, drawing stern criticism from the French.
Thebault addressed the issue, saying the leaking of the texts was an “unprecedented new low … in terms of truth and trust”.
“You don’t behave like this,” he said.
“Doing so also sends a very worrying signal for all heads of state – be aware, in Australia, there will be leaks.
“What you say in confidence … will be eventually used and weaponised against you.”