France recalls envoys to Australia, US in escalating row

Published September 19, 2021
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian leaves the Elysee Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, France. — Reuters/File
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian leaves the Elysee Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, France. — Reuters/File

PARIS: France on Friday recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia in a ferocious row over the scrapping of a submarine contract, an unprecedented step that revealed the extent of French anger against its allies.

President Emmanuel Macron recalled the envoys after Canberra ditched a deal to buy French submarines in favour of US vessels, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Le Drian said that the decision was made to “immediately” recall the two French ambassadors due to “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on Sept 15 by Australia and the United States”.

The abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project that Australia and France had been working on since 2016 constituted “unacceptable behaviour among allies and partners,” the minister said. “Their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe,” he added.

US President Joe Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on Wednesday, extending US nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities. The pact is widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China. The move infuriated France, which lost a contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia that was worth $36.5 billion when signed in 2016.

A White House official expressed “regret” over the French envoy’s recall but added “we will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a tweet that Washington understood France’s position and was in “close contact” with Paris.

He added that the issue would be discussed “at the senior level”, including at the United Nations General Assembly next week, which both Le Drian and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby meanwhile acknowledged that telephone talks earlier between US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and French counterpart Florence Parly showed “that there is still much work to do in terms of our defence relationship with France.”

The French ambassador recalls from the United States and Australia — key allies of France — are unprecedented. Withdrawing envoys is a last resort diplomatic step taken when relations between feuding countries are plunged into crisis but highly unusual between allies.

“I am being recalled to Paris for consultations,” France ambassador to the US Philippe Etienne wrote on Twitter. “This follows announcements directly affecting the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.” Paris sees itself as a major power in the Indo-Pacific due to overseas territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia which give it a strategic and military foothold unmatched by any other European country.

France had made no effort to disguise its fury even before the recalls and on Thursday Le Drian accused Australia of back-stabbing and Washington of Donald Trump-era behaviour over the submarines deal.

The row has for now at least put on hold hopes of a post-Trump renaissance in Paris-Washington relations under Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a fluent French speaker who was educated in Paris.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2021

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