The French Ambassador to Australia was in a car bound for Sydney Airport on an urgent flight home when he revealed he was “as sad as any decent person would be.”
Jean-Pierre Thebault left Australia on Saturday evening after the cancellation of the $ 90 billion submarine deal with France at the end of last week, causing an unexpected breakdown in relations between two friendly countries .
“I have seen and learned how deep it is for an Australian to commit to protecting each other. What makes me sad is that we thought we were friends and got stabbed in the back, ”Thebault told Guardian Australia on the way from Canberra to Sydney Airport.
The seasoned diplomat has been recalled to Paris, along with his counterpart in Washington, as the French government reflects on how to respond to what officials in the Biden administration have called “the greatest strategic step Australia has taken. taken for generations ”.
The big step involved the US and UK agreeing to share sensitive technology and help Australia build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, a capability that the allies say is needed for respond to growing concerns about China’s military assertion. Collateral damage to the deal – hatched among Aukus allies in secret – were Australia’s existing plans with the French naval group for 12 diesel-electric submarines.
Thebault maintains that France has not received any warning.
There were Australian news reports earlier this year that the government was conducting a review that could lead to contract termination, amid concerns over cost increases and schedule slips. In June, Australian defense officials told a Senate committee they were preparing “cautious” contingency planning.
But Thebault said “at no time, under any circumstances” has France received “a clear signal that the contract would be terminated.” France believed that these contractual issues were being resolved and that the conversations would continue.
“I can only say that the feeling of betrayal is very strong,” said Thebault, who started his assignment in Australia 10 months ago, from the car.
“And I use these words because of what has now emerged from seemingly reliable sources, which have received no official denial, that it has been going on for 18 months. It was intentionally decided to keep France completely in the dark at the same time as several Australian officials were not only discussing with France the present day. [submarine] program, but also said that they were ready to make this program a success and a symbol of the bilateral relationship.
When asked if “betrayal” – that is, betraying one’s own country – went too far, the Ambassador replied that he literally did not mean it. He said the “feeling of betrayal” was strong “because of the lack of respect, and because of the lack of transparency, because we were committed to a partnership”.
“We’re not talking about normal contracts; we are talking about a strategic partnership where France shared state military secrets with Australia and was committed to creating a sovereign industry in Australia according to the standards set by Australia, ”said Thebault.
“It’s like in a couple, you know, when you get involved. Afterwards, you have duties and opportunities… duty is decency, duty is transparency. If for some reason you feel you need to change your mind, you say so, you don’t run away.
A defense source said the Australians first went to the British Royal Navy to discuss Canberra’s desire to abandon the French contract and build nuclear-powered submarines with the UK and the United Kingdom. United States instead. After gaining British support, the Australians then turned to the Biden administration.
It was up to the Australians to break the news to the French, but there seemed to be divisions in Canberra over how best to go about it.
“Some Australians wanted to call a week and say we’re so sorry, we put the diesel sub contract, and call next week, and say we just want you to know we’ve found a better sub and c ‘is British,’ the defense source said. “There was another school of thought that said, don’t do it like that. They will see through it and it will be worse because it will look deceptive.
In the end, neither team won. The French were not notified until details began to leak to Australian and US media on Wednesday.
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Paris in June, with Macron saying the submarines delivered by France “would strengthen Australia’s position and contribute to sovereignty and Australia’s strategic autonomy ”.
It was just days after Morrison joined UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden for a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall. The three leaders are now believed to have discussed plans for defense cooperation at that meeting leading up to the eventual announcement of the so-called Aukus Pact.
Morrison told reporters on Thursday that he had been “very clear” during discussions with Macron about “the strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific” and that there were “very real issues as to whether a capability under -conventional navy would be able to meet those in the future. ”.
Thebault – who was in Paris during this visit – offers this version: “The Prime Minister, to our knowledge, signaled that there were questions raised about the development of the situation in the region… but what was agreed that this conversation would continue. “
Just two weeks before Aukus’ announcement, Australian ministers Marise Payne and Peter Dutton met by video link with their French counterparts to announce ever closer ties. According to the official joint statement, the four ministers “underlined the importance of the future submarine program”.
Thebault – a senior foreign affairs official who served as ambassador to Ireland and oversaw France’s preparations to host the G7 in 2018-19 – said the talks at the end of August were “very positive and friendly”, but he was now evident that there was “no sincerity.” in the debate ”.
The timing is also a source of tension: France had encouraged the European Union to adopt a “very, very active” Indo-Pacific policy. The EU’s announcement of its forward-looking regional strategy coincided, according to Thebault, with Australia’s revelation of its decision “to go back on its word, its commitment and its signature.”
“This can only have a deep, deep, long-term impact, not only on the bilateral relationship but also on the relationship between Australia and European countries, and also, perhaps, more globally, because such an attitude and such a way of treating a friend and ally is not something that will go unnoticed.
The Australian government says it “takes note with regret” of France’s decision to dismiss its ambassador.
Dutton told Sky News on Sunday that he understood “that the French are unhappy with the cancellation of the contract”.
“But at the end of the day our job is to act in our national interest, and the suggestions that the concerns were not reported by the Australian government challenge, frankly, what is known to the public and certainly what has been. said publicly over a long period of time. “
The Defense Minister insisted that Australia wanted to work “very closely with the French … in the future”.
Some Australian politicians believe France may have overreacted to the decision in part because of the upcoming presidential elections, with Macron facing a first-round vote in April. “The French are about to go through an election season,” said Jason Falinski, a Sydney-based Liberal MP, who argues that the recall of ambassadors “is what the French government had to do to send a signal to its people.” to introduce oneself. for French interests.
Thebault is a diplomat when asked about this point of view. “I will not comment on Australian politicians commenting on the French elections,” he said, but also hinted at possible political considerations in Australia as well. Morrison is due to call a federal election by May.
“I have also seen many articles in the press – and I do not want to express an opinion on this – that some decisions in Australia are sometimes also made in view of potential elections. “
Thebault is timid about what needs to be done to fix Canberra-Paris relations amid suggestions from French ministers that the EU’s trade talks with Australia could be affected.
“What will be the extent and depth of the damage – this assessment is why I am recalled for consultation with France, where I can discuss with the ministers concerned and the authorities in order to obtain their opinion, to give my opinion and try to assess what can be done, ”the ambassador said.
“I just want to say that whatever decision is taken, it does not in any way diminish the very high esteem and appreciation France has for Australia as a country – and for Australians as friends, partners. and allies. “
– additional reporting Julian Borger