French ambassador accuses Australia of deceit and acting ‘out of this world’ as submarines rift deepens

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The French ambassador has condemned the Australian government over its handling of the Aukus nuclear submarine deal, declaring it had treated France in a deliberately deceitful manner and that “alarm bells should have rung on the likely consequences”.

Jean-Pierre Thébault said the Morrison government had acted in a way that was “out of this world” and not befitting of friends, and he questioned whether any other partner could now trust “the value of Australia’s signature and commitment”.

Photograph: Michel Euler/AP© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Michel Euler/APThébault also raised doubts about whether Australia’s new partnership with the US and the UK would deliver nuclear-propelled submarines quickly enough, telling the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday: “Magical thinking will not change the facts.”

And he said Australia would be scrutinised by the international community over its “very specific responsibilities”, arguing the deal could have implications “in terms of our common efforts to strengthen non-proliferation norms”.

“France will always be a close and loyal friend of Australia,” he said.

“No artificial wedge, despite attempts, can be put between our people. If there is a problem today it is with certain aspects of the ‘Canberra Bubble’ and its ‘Secret city’ practices.

Thébault’s speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday is his first substantive comments on the submarine rift since his return to Canberra.

He was recalled to Paris in September after Australia scrapped a $90bn French deal in order to launch an 18-month study with the US and the UK on acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines.

Thébault said the defence and foreign ministers of France and Australia met just two weeks before Aukus was unveiled, with both sides agreeing to a joint statement that underlined the importance of the future submarine program.

“Do you agree on such a joint communiqué when there is the slightest doubt on something so massive as the official backbone of our cooperation? Maybe on Mars. But not on this planet,” Thébault said, according to his prepared speech notes.

Thébault suggested that the reason the Australian government did not want to be explicit was explained by Morrison on 16 September, when the prime minister said there was never any certainty that the Aukus process would result in a deal.

The ambassador said the prime minister was alluding to the high uncertainties surrounding the likely closure of an alternative deal.

Thébault said that meant it was deemed necessary to keep open the possibility of continuing the French submarine program, “and so it was mandatory to keep us in the dark, on the backburner”.

Arguing “the deceit was intentional”, Thébault said: “Because there was far more at stake than providing submarines, because it was a common agreement on sovereignty, sealed with the transmission of highly classified data, the way it was handled was a stab in the back.”

He acknowledged that the Australian government would make its own decisions when it came to national security.

“But the way this Australian government decided to turn its back on our solemn and far reaching partnership, without ever frankly consulting with France, when there were countless opportunities, without having shared frankly and openly its thoughts or without having looked for alternatives with France, is just out of this world,” Thébault said.

“With solemn promises and acts, we were supposed to develop a joint approach in the region for the next 50 years. What can any partner of Australia now think? Is this the value of Australia’s signature and commitment?”

Thébault said reneging on its commitments “was a unilateral act from this Australian Government, a conscious decision and it is its historical responsibility”.

“Alarm bells should have rung on the likely consequences. And if it was the case, and they were disregarded, it is even worse. I have seen the comments already made by many former highly experienced Australian diplomats.

“These are not things which are done between partners, even less between friends.”

Thébault said the Naval Group-backed project to deliver 12 conventional submarines had not been “trouble” or suffered cost blowouts, despite an “intensive smearing campaign” about the program.

“In retrospect, knowing what we know for sure today, about the relentless conduct in parallel of an alternative plan, some had a direct interest to sabotage the public support and understanding for the Attack class program,” he said.

He said the Australian Government was “abandoning a solid cooperation with well-established parameters for a yet-unspecified project, without even a solid transition”.

He said France had at its heart “the interest and security of the Australians, fellow Indo-Pacific neighbors and friends” but experts were to be anxious about elements of the proposed new Aukus-backed submarine project, including a potential capability gap while waiting for the new boats.

Thébault said the further development of highly-enrichment uranium (HEU) naval propulsion programs “goes against decades-long and costly international efforts, led notably by the United States, to reduce stocks of HEUs around the world”.

“Reconciling this project with the imperatives of nuclear non-proliferation will be a long and complex job,” Thébault said.

The comments come as the former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull intensified his criticism of his successor, Scott Morrison, over the handling of Aukus.

“It’s quite clear that Emmanuel Macron is justified in complaining about Morrison’s conduct – Scott Morrison elaborately deceived the French,” Turnbull told reporters on the sidelines of Cop26 in Glasgow.

“It is a shameful episode. It is just shameful and Morrison should apologise.” AdChoices

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