France has accused Australia of lying shortly before Canberra cancelled a major submarine contract, with the French foreign minister declaring “someone lied”.
With no sign of any imminent easing of tensions between the two countries, Jean-Yves Le Drian told a parliamentary hearing that Australia had never expressed doubts about the €56bn (A$90bn) submarine contract or the strategic Indo-Pacific pact before breaking the contract.
“Everything I have told you is confirmed by the letter I received on 15 September from the Australian ministry of defence that said everything is OK let’s continue,” Le Drian said.
The French foreign minister said this suggested “someone lied”. He added: “Something doesn’t add up and we don’t know what.”
Le Drian reiterated that French contractor Naval Group had received a letter on the same day the contract was broken saying Australia was “satisfied” with the strategic review of the submarines and was ready for the “rapid signature for the second phase of the programme”.
As a result, the decision to break the multibillion submarine contract was met with “stupor” in France, he said.
The letter in question has not been publicly released. The Guardian has contacted the Australian government for comment, but it has previously played down the letter’s significance.
Last week a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Defence told the Guardian: “On 15 September 2021, Naval Group was advised that the formal exit of a system review had been achieved as required under the contractual arrangements in place at the time.”
The spokesperson added: “This correspondence did not refer to or authorise commencement of the next phase of the program, which remained subject to the announcement of decisions by the Australian government.”
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has repeatedly defended the fallout from his joining with the UK and the US for a new defence cooperation arrangement to deliver nuclear-propelled submarines.
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Morrison maintains he acted in Australia’s national security interests at a time of a worsening strategic outlook in the Indo-Pacific, while acknowledging France’s “disappointment”.
But Le Drian said right up to the day of what he described as a “betrayal”, France was being reassured by Australia that everything was fine.
He repeated that what was at stake was far more than a commercial contract, and involved the broader strategic relationship between the two countries.
Le Drian said Australia had “asked for conventional submarines” as opposed to nuclear-powered vessels. That is a reference to specifications set by the Australia government when it launched a competitive evaluation process for the future submarine project in 2015.
“These are the facts and they speak for themselves,” Le Drian told a Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces Committee of the upper house, the Sénat. He added that the Australian decision to throw over a partnership with France for a pact with the US meant it had given up its defence sovereignty.
Le Drian repeated several times that the Aukus deal represented a “total loss of sovereignty” for Australia.
“It is not just the breaking of a contract, it is a betrayal and a breaking of trust,” he said.
“The effect is that Australia has abandoned its sovereignty and made a leap into the unknown with the choice of technology it doesn’t control and won’t control in the future. This puts it at the mercy of US politics.”
Le Drian said France still did not know what role the UK would play in the project.
“The ball is in the British camp. If they want to go forward confidence needs to be rebuilt.”
Le Drian said France was “waiting for strong actions and not just words”. He said the French ambassador would return to Australia “when we have had a review”. The ambassador to France is returning to the US this week. Both were recalled for consultations in France “to show the gravity of this treason and breach of trust”.
He said the US’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific was based on “confrontation, even military confrontation”, and said France wanted to work with “other actors in the Indo-Pacific” to combat Chinese expansion in the region.
The minister said France had the support of the EU27. “They perfectly understood this crisis and this was not just friendly support with France … they realise that what is at stake. This is a strategic European crisis.”
Earlier, an Élysée official said any future talks between Emmanuel Macron and Morrison over the fallout from Canberra’s decision to tear up the submarine deal would have to be “seriously prepared” and have “substance”.
The Australian trade minister, Dan Tehan, has also struggled to secure a meeting with his French counterpart during a forthcoming trip to Paris, where he will also attend OECD and World Trade Organization-related meetings. Tehan said on Saturday that “remains an open invitation”.