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French ambassador accuses Australia of deceit over submarine deal

French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault delivers his address to the National Press Club in Canberra on Nov. 3. (Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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MELBOURNE, Australia — France on Wednesday doubled down on its anger with Australia for tearing up a $67 billion submarine deal, with Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thébault accusing the nation of intentionally deceiving Paris and of worsening the diplomatic rift with “low” tactics.

In remarks to Australia’s National Press Club in Canberra, Thébault said Australia’s decision to cancel the contract for diesel-powered boats in favor of a nuclear-submarine alliance with the United States and Britain was “treason in the making” and a “stab in the back.”

His scathing comments followed the leak of a text message from President Emmanuel Macron to Prime Minister Scott Morrison that appeared in a Sydney newspaper on Tuesday, in which the French leader had asked, “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?”

The leak — intended to show that Paris knew the submarine contract could be canceled — came after Macron accused Morrison of lying to him about Australia’s plans.

France’s Macron accuses Australia’s prime minister of lying about submarine deal: ‘I don’t think, I know’

Thébault, who recently returned to Australia after Paris recalled him for consultations, said the leak sent a worrying signal to all heads of state that their private discussions would be “weaponized” against them by the Australian government.

“This is an unprecedented new low,” he said. “You don’t behave like this on personal exchanges of leaders who were allies.”

France’s fury over the submarine deal and Australia’s decision to enter the AUKUS alliance with Washington and London underscores the long road Australia faces to rebuild the relationship with an important European partner. But Thébault stressed the problem lay not with Australia’s people but with the Morrison government.

“France will always be a close and loyal friend of Australia and the Australians,” he said. “If there is a problem today, it is with certain aspects of the Canberra bubble and its ‘secret city’ practices.” (That phrase appeared to be a reference to a TV series about political skulduggery set in the Australian capital.)

He described the Australian government’s response to French anger as “sad,” and he drew a comparison with President Biden’s handling of the diplomatic tensions over AUKUS by stressing the United States and France had “found again the path to acting together.”

Thébault said the leaked message from Macron to Morrison, sent two days before Australia canceled the contract with France’s state-owned Naval Group in September, demonstrated Paris was in the dark about Australia’s plans until the last moment.

“It completely demonstrates that nothing has ever been told to us,” he said.

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Speaking in Dubai after Thébault’s address, the Australian leader said he planned to “move on” when asked how he intended to repair the relationship with France.

Morrison, who was returning to Australia from the COP26 climate summit in Scotland, said he would “never make any apologies” for not going ahead with the deal for diesel-powered submarines.

“I don’t think there’s any further profit for anyone in continuing down this path,” he said. “We made the decision we needed to make in Australia’s national interest.”

The diplomatic spat has come at a time when Morrison’s political future hangs in the balance. The conservative leader must hold an election by May, and Macron’s portrayal of him as a liar on the world stage could play into the hands of the opposition Labor Party.

France is scheduled to hold presidential elections in April.

Elsewhere in his speech, Thébault warned the cancellation of the submarine contract would cost jobs in South Australia state, where France had partnered with local businesses and Naval Group had hired 300 local employees, a key condition of the original deal.

Those workers “are facing a precarious situation,” Thébault said. “We deeply feel for our friends in Adelaide.”

When asked if Morrison should apologize for his handling of the affair, he said that “it’s worth it, even sometimes, to eat your share of humble pie.”

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