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French envoy to return to Australia after sub spat

October 7, 2021

France says it is sending its ambassador back to Australia to help "redefine the terms'' of the bilateral relationship after Canberra ditched a multibillion-dollar submarine contract.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Scott Morrison's decision to buy US submarines drew the ire of France Image: UN Web TV via AP/picture alliance

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday welcomed France's decision to return its ambassador to Canberra following a diplomatic row over a canceled submarine deal.

Australia pulled out of the $66-billion (€57-billion) contract to acquire 12 diesel-electric submarines from majority French state-owned Naval Group last month in favor of a US offer. Canberra now plans to build eight nuclear-powered subs using US and British technology as part of a new security partnership with those two countries.

The deal's collapse angered France, which accused Australia of backstabbing and swiftly recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington.

The envoy to the US has since returned to his post. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced Wednesday that Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault would also return to Canberra. However, he did not specify a date.

France blindsided by US-Australian submarine deal: Sonia Phalnikar reports

Envoy to 'redefine' relationship

Le Drian said Thebault had two objectives: to help "redefine the terms'' of the bilateral relationship and "firmly defend our interests" as the two sides negotiate a settlement.

It is not yet clear how much Australia's scrapping of the contract, signed in 2016, will cost. Morrison said last month that the government had already spent $1.8 billion on the project.

"We have a very good understanding of how we're going to proceed with that matter. We'll be working within the contract as it's set out,'' Morrison said. While he welcomed the French ambassador's planned return, the prime minister dismissed suggestions Australia needed to repair its relationship with France.

"We already have cooperation. See, the Australia-France relationship is bigger than a contract,'' Morrison said.

"France's presence and significance and influence in the Indo-Pacific isn't about a contract. It's about the fact they have an actual presence here, in the Indo-Pacific, that they have a long-standing commitment and work with Australia across a whole range of different issues,'' he added.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he hoped the allies could now "move beyond our recent disappointments."

Rift between Canberra and EU allies

Morrison said French President Emmanuel Macron would not take his calls, adding that he looked forward to their next opportunity to meet.

"I acknowledge it's a difficult period," he said. "There was no way that we could have taken this decision without it ... causing deep disappointment and hurt to France.''

Australia's decision to abandon the deal also led the European Union to postpone last week's negotiations for a free trade deal with Canberra in a show of solidarity with France.

Bernd Lange, a German lawmaker and chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on International Trade, said the recent developments had raised doubts about whether Australia could be trusted.

nm/wmr (AP, Reuters, AFP)