The French ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, has told Australian media that his mission in returning to the country is to determine whether France still trusts Australia after the sudden cancellation of a multibillion-dollar order for French submarines in favour of a new deal with the United States and the United Kingdom.
Speaking to local radio on Friday, Thebault said that while he understood that it was Australia’s sovereign right to make a new deal to serve its national interests, France took exception to “the way it was managed,” which he said was “a serious breach in trust” that needs to be repaired.
As part of the new AUKUS security alliance between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, Australia will be supplied with technology to construct its own nuclear submarines.
French officials allegedly learned of the deal just hours before U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement. France later recalled its Australian and U.S. ambassadors in protest.
At first, the French ambassador—when asked—said that “it remains to be seen” if the two countries can be friends again. But he later backtracked and said that “Australia remains our friend.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison—who welcomed the French ambassador’s return—defended the deal on Thursday, which he said was a “difficult decision” that caused “deep disappointment and hurt to France” but was better for Australia’s national interests.
“That’s the thing about difficult decisions. To take difficult decisions, you need to be conscious of what the implications of those are.
“But understand what the greater benefit is to Australia’s national interests. That’s what I did on the subs. That’s what I’ve done on AUKUS,” Morrison said.
Thebault on Friday said France was “best placed to know and support the idea of sovereignty” but said, “the way you do the thing, describes who you are.”
“We need the Morrison government to rebuild the trust,” Thebault told a national radio service. He noted that it would take time but that the French ambassador was committed to having those discussions.
“When you cite, publicly, on several instances, until the last minute, of the absolute importance of your ally; on mutual respect, on values of transparency and openness, you cannot behave exactly the other way,” he said.
The prime minister also said that he looked forward to the first time he and French President Emmanuel Macron could speak again on the phone.
“We’ve worked together very closely, and I’m looking forward to getting through what is a difficult period,” he said.