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France recalls US, Australian ambassadors over submarine feud

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a news conference on August 28, 2021, in Baghdad. (Ludovic Marin/POOL/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia in a diplomatic slap intended to convey its anger over a deal forged in secrecy that saw Paris lose a multibillion-dollar submarine contract.

While France and the U.S. have at times been at odds on global affairs, including over the Iraq War in 2003, Paris has never gone so far as to remove its envoy to Washington, according to senior French diplomats who declined to speculate how long the envoys would be gone.

It’s also unclear whether more slights are planned and if France is expecting a U.S. overture in order to move on. French officials have already canceled a gala in Washington and Baltimore this week meant to celebrate Franco-American ties.

The French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

The stunning decision comes two days after Australia’s Scott Morrison unveiled plans to buy nuclear-powered submarines in a joint announcement with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The new partnership effectively scuppered Australia’s 2016 deal with French shipbuilder Naval Group to build as many as 12 conventional submarines in a project that had gone over budget but seemed secure.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made the announcement on the envoys late Friday and denounced the deal as “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners, the consequences of which affect the very conception we have of our alliances, our partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.”

A White House official said the Biden administration would try to work out its differences with Paris. The official said France and the U.S. would continue to cooperate on issues including the pandemic and security.

The loss of the Australian submarine deal is a personal blow for President Emmanuel Macron. In June, Macron invited Morrison to Paris after the Group of Seven summit, and the two discussed the contract with state-owned Naval Group, focusing on delays and pricing, two people familiar with the discussions said.

From the French perspective, there was never a suggestion that Australia was about to ditch the contract, look for other partners, or had second thoughts. Two French officials describe it as the typical discussions befitting a deal of that size and that Macron felt he had responded to Morrison’s queries.

Macron and Biden have previously had a warm relationship.

The French president publicly rejoiced at the G-7 meeting in June that America was “back” and ready to work with European partners, after difficult years under former U.S. President Donald Trump.

If France had any suspicion the submarine deal was in danger, two French officials said, it would never have signed a road map with Australia only two weeks ago, in which they “committed to deepen defense industry cooperation” and “underlined the importance of the future submarine program.”

How the communication went down with all the parties involved is still up in the air. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that high-level U.S. officials discussed the Australia partnership with French counterparts before its public announcement. Officials in the U.K. and the U.S. have said it was for Australia to warn France.

Australia, for its part, justified the cancellation of the French contract by its fundamental need for nuclear-powered rather than diesel submarines in a changing security environment as China expands its military clout in the Indo-Pacific region. In short, it wasn’t personal.

But the French, by their reaction, see it differently.

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©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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