Were the French blindsided by the AUKUS submarine deal?

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French officials are adamant they learned that Canberra was ditching a $66 billion French submarine contract only when the first reports began to emerge in the Australian press. But Canberra insists France had long known the deal was on the rocks.

French leader Emmanuel Macron welcomed Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Paris in June, with concern about a bilateral submarine contract high on his mind.

In remarks made on the steps of the Élysée Palace, Macron turned to "dear Scott", as he called him, and promised that France would "go further and faster" to "respond to Australian needs".

But Morrison didn't mention the landmark deal – worth €31 billion when it was signed in 2016. He said nothing in his public remarks about what was known as the "contract of the century" in France.

French officials admit privately that they knew all was not well.

"We had heard about Australian worries about the contract," a source close to Macron acknowledged on condition of anonymity. "That's why we made ourselves available to respond to their questions and give them assurances.

"The president took the initiative to invite Morrison in June."

Over their dinner at the Élysée Palace, Macron pressed "ScoMo" for details about Australian concerns over the contract with France's Naval Group.

Two weeks earlier on June 2, Greg Moriarty, the top civil servant in Australia's department of defence, had set alarm bells ringing in Paris after he raised the possibility of "alternatives" to the French deal because of ongoing difficulties.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly contacted her Australian counterpart, Peter Dutton, on June 9 to seek clarification and was given further reassurances, a French source told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Overall, the June visit with Morrison "did not go well", according to another French source, who declined to give more details.

Macron sent a personal letter to Morrison after their visit, while contacts intensified between Australian and French officials, engineers and military officers.

The Australian concerns were a matter of public record, with worries focused on cost over-runs and delays, as well as the bigger issue of whether the 12 submarines would be fit for purpose once they entered service in the early 2030s.

When the contract was signed in 2016, Canberra wanted conventional diesel-powered subs.

But five years later, a trade war with China and growing concern about Beijing's assertiveness around the Pacific had led to calls for nuclear versions, which can stay submerged for longer.

Misgivings

Interviews AFP conducted with high-level French officials indicate that Paris did everything to keep the "contract of the century" on course.

Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton raised "worries about the Australian capacities" for the first time in a call on June 24, a defence source told AFP.

France's ambassador to Washington, Philippe Étienne, was sent to sound out "companies, the NSA (National Security Agency), the White House – and he found nothing", one source said.

A meeting on August 30 between defence and foreign ministers from Australia and France via video conference assuaged some of the French concerns. Among other things, they agreed in a joint statement to "deepen defence industry cooperation" and "underlined the importance of the Future Submarine programme".

Confidence also grew that the two sides were also on track to complete the so-called System Functional Review – a key stage that had been under discussion for the last two years.

French satisfaction was to be short lived, however. On Friday, September 10, the embassy in Canberra flagged an unusual development back to Paris: the Australian defence and foreign affairs ministers were heading to Washington for in-person meetings.

The French were sufficiently alarmed to seek explanations from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, both of whom avoided calls with their French counterparts, according to a French source.

He said, he said

French officials are adamant they learned that Canberra was ditching a French contract submarine contract only when the first reports began to emerge in the Australian press on the evening of September 15, European time. But Australian authorities are equally insistent that their concerns were well known.

"Morrison tried to reach the president when the rumour about the end of the contract was already in the press," an Elysée presidential source said.

But Macron refused to take the call without prior clarification, the source added.

Morrison ended up sending a letter, which arrived "a few hours" before the public announcement.

The Australian prime minister said on Sunday that Paris would have known Canberra had "deep and grave concerns" about French submarines beforehand, saying he had raised concerns over the deal "some months ago", as had other Australian ministers.

In emergency talks between angry French officials and their US counterparts, the Americans explained that Australia had approached Britain, which then facilitated talks with the new US administration of Joe Biden.

In-person talks on the issue between Morrison, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took place on the sidelines of a G7 summit in England on June 11-12 – three days before Morrison arrived in Paris, French sources believe.

And even though Biden announced the AUKUS partnership in a joint statement with the other two leaders, the Americans insisted in private that it was Australia's responsibility to inform Paris of the new partnership.

'Treachery'

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called the trilateral submarine deal evidence of "duplicity", "treachery" and a "stab in the back". He has also criticised Morrison's lack of candour.

France recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia on Friday.

Le Drian said Monday that there was now a “crisis of trust” with the United States.

EU Council President Charles Michel also strongly criticised the Biden administration for leaving Europe “out of the game in the Indo-Pacific region”.

Biden, for his part, has downplayed the tensions with France. Asked by a reporter as he arrived for his speech at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday how he planned to repair relations with the French, Biden responded glibly, “They're great.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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