The French government says it was betrayed when Australia pulled out of their existing multi-billion dollar defense deal, agreeing instead to attain nuclear-powered submarines through a new deal with the United States and the United Kingdom.
The effort to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines – a major step toward countering China as President Joe Biden works to build international backing for his approach to Beijing – is part of a new trilateral partnership among the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, dubbed “AUKUS.”
High-ranking French officials said the AUKUS deal was a stab in the back and a move that “shows a lack of coherence.”
In response to the trilateral agreement, a French official told CNN on Friday that France has recalled its ambassador to the US for “consultation” – marking what’s believed to be the first time the French have resorted to such a move in modern times.
The French ambassador to Australia has been recalled as well, the official said.
The French government has also scrapped an upcoming reception at the French Embassy in Washington, DC, and toned down celebrations to commemorate a a Revolutionary War naval victory by the French that helped the US to win its independence.
Why is France so angry about the trilateral deal?
France stands to lose the equivalent of $65 billion US dollars from an existing deal to provide Australia with conventional, diesel-powered submarines.
The canceled deal with France, a major global weapons exporter, is expected to make a significant economic impact on the French defense sector. France also stands to lose out strategically in the Indo-Pacific, where the country holds significant interests.
On Thursday, after the nuclear-powered submarine deal with the US and the UK was announced, Australia formally announced it would be withdrawing from its previous contract for conventional submarines with France.
The deal with Paris had been in the works for years.
Australia previously planned to acquire 12 conventional attack-class submarines from the French shipbuilder Naval Group, which successfully beat out competing German and Japanese bids in 2016.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he was “angry and bitter” about Australia’s new submarine agreement.
“This isn’t done between allies. It’s really a stab in the back,” he added.
The French foreign minister also had strong words for the US, saying: “This brutal and unilateral decision resembles a lot of what Trump is doing.”
Le Drian also released a joint statement with French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly on Wednesday, saying, “The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”
Le Drian said Australia’s decision to withdraw from the agreement with France was “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia,” but Australia has maintained that there were parts of their contract that allowed it to exit the deal.
The US decision to cut out one of its strongest allies, France, comes as global powers jockey for power in the Indo-Pacific – largely against the threat of China.
The AUKUS announcement also came one day before the European Union was set to present its highly anticipated strategy for the Indo-Pacific.
The joint statement with Le Drian called France “the only European nation present in the Indo-Pacific with nearly two million citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel,” and the statement affirmed that France is a “reliable partner that will continue to fulfill its commitments, as it has always done.” It also said Australia’s decision “reinforces the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear.”
The submarine deal also comes on the heels of the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, leading to criticism from NATO allies.
Australia and the US see things differently
The Americans and the Australians have indicated that the French government wasn’t blindsided by the reneging of the original contract, saying high-ranking French officials were made aware of the decision by the Australian government.
“This was relayed directly to the president, relayed directly to the minister for Foreign Affairs and the minister for Defence,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday.
Morrison said that when he met with French President Emmanuel Macron in late June, “I made it very clear – we had a lengthy dinner there in Paris – about our very significant concerns about the capabilities of conventional submarines to deal with the new strategic environment we’re faced with. And I made it very clear that this was a matter that Australia would need to make a decision on in our national interest.”
Australia’s Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in a news conference on Thursday that the decision to choose the American nuclear-powered submarine over France’s conventional diesel submarine “is based on what is in the best interests of our national security.”
Dutton argued that “the French have a version which was not superior to that operated by the United States, the United Kingdom. And in the end, the decision that we have made is based on what is in the best interest of our national security.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also sought to downplay the rift between the US and France, stressing the importance of Paris as “a vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.
“I want to emphasize that there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and our Pacific partners,” Blinken said in remarks at the State Department on Thursday.
Blinken said the US welcomes “European countries playing an important role in the Indo-Pacific,” adding that “France, in particular, is a vital partner on this and so many other issues stretching back generations, and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our trans-Atlantic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Angus Watson and Sugam Pokharel contributed to this report.