In a stunning break with the United States’ oldest ally, France has recalled its ambassador to the US after a blowup over a new pact between the US, Great Britain, and Australia.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves LeDrain announced the move to recall ambassador Philippe Etienne Friday night, saying it came in a request from French President Francois Macron.
He cited the ‘exceptional seriousness of the announcements’ – which caught France off guard and resulted in the cancelation of multi-billion dollar contracts for Australia to build and purchase French diesel submarines for its defense.
ATHENS, GREECE – SEPTEMBER 17: French President Emmanuel Macron delivering a statement during the EUMed9 Summit at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center on September 17, 2021 in Athens, Greece. The group represents an alliance of southern European Union countries: Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
He called the nixing of the $90 billion sub contract ‘unacceptable behavior.’
The move, reported by the Associated Press, comes amid a huge backlash in France over the move.
A French diplomatic source also lashed out at Britain, telling Reuters: ‘The UK accompanied this operation opportunistically. We do not need to consult in Paris with our ambassador to know what to think and what conclusions to draw from it.’
The U.S. during regular diplomatic events with French diplomats points to France’s essential support for the U.S. during the American Revolution, and numerous US presidents have taken part in annual commemorations of the Normandy invasion that attest to the close historical bonds between the two nations.
The stunning diplomatic slap comes a day after France made a lesser statement by nixing a planned gala at its luxurious embassy in Washington that was meant to celebrate the U.S.-French relationship, while also ditching another event in Baltimore.
AU REVOIR: French Ambassador to the US Philippe Etienne has been recalled amid a diplomatic row over a new US-UK-Australia alliance
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian cited the ‘exceptional seriousness of the announcements’ in the decision to recall the ambassador to the US
The embassy gala was to mark the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes, when the French Navy fought the Royal Navy of Britain during the Revolutionary War.
It all came at the end of a week where President Joe Biden announced a new agreement between the US, the UK, and Australia, in a move meant to counter China and bolster security in the Indo-Pacific region.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (l) described President Biden’s deal as a ‘unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision’ amid French fury that it triggered cancelation of an Australian agreement to buy French diesel powered submarines
America and the UK are to help Australia build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as part of an unprecedented alliance known as the AUKUS pact to combat China’s naval dominance and will likely be the similar design as this Astute class submarine HMS Ambush (pictured)
The French embassy event was supposed to commemorate the 1781 ‘Battle of the Capes when the French Navy delivered a decisive blow to Britain’s Royal Navy in the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Virgina Capes shows British forces on the right and French on the left
Under the terms, Australia for the first time would purchase US-made nuclear submarines, which are quieter, faster, and must come to port less frequently than diesel or electric boats.
The move infuriated France, which said it had not been informed long in advance.
Biden, who ran in part trumpeting his deft touch in diplomacy after helming the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now finds himself at the center a diplomatic row with a key ally.
It comes at a time when his handling of the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan is also under scrutiny.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said France had been informed in advance of the move, and tried to put the best light on the state of relations.
‘France in particular is a vital partner on this, and so many other issues,’ he said.
The diplomatic slap came just minutes after the US military had to admit that a US drone strike in the final days before the US pullout in Afghanistan had mistakenly hit an aid worker, killing nine family members, including seven children.
Australia had been relying on French shipbuilder Naval Group to construct its disel submarine fleet, set to be delivered in the mid 2030s.
The move also piqued the government New Zealand, which has a longstanding opposition to nuclear energy, and which was not included in the agreement.
Why is Australia building nuclear-powered submarines?
Why nuclear submarines?
Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors which produce heat that creates high-pressured steam to spin turbines and power the boat’s propeller.
They can run for about 20 years before needing to refuel, meaning food supplies are the only limit on time at sea.
The boats are also very quiet, making it harder for enemies to detect them and can travel at top speed – about 25mph – for longer than diesel-powered subs.
The first nuclear submarines were put to sea by the United States in the 1950s. They are now also in use by Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India.
A senior US defense official told reporters in Washington DC: ‘This will give Australia the capability for their submarines to basically deploy for a longer period, they’re quieter, they’re much more capable.’
Will Australia have nuclear weapons?
Scott Morrison made it clear that the nuclear-power submarines will not have nuclear missiles on board.
Australia has never produced nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 which prevents non-nuclear states which don’t already have them from developing nuclear weapons.
Mr Morrison also said the Australia has no plans to build nuclear power stations which are widely used around the world.
‘But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,’ he said.
Are they safe?
The nuclear reactors are shielded from the rest of the submarine in a separate section to protect the crew from dangerous radiation.
The US has an excellent safety record with its nuclear-powered fleet although early Russian subs suffered a few accidents which caused 20 servicemen to die from radiation exposure between 1960 and 1985.
At the end of their 20-year lifetimes, the contaminated parts of nuclear reactors need to be disposed deep underground in special waste storage cells.
Anti-nuclear campaigners say any leaks of radioactive waste could lead to an environmental disaster.
Australia needs to replace its six ageing Collins-class submarines.
In 2016 it signed a deal with French Company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric attack subs – but the parties were in dispute over the amount of building that would be done in Australia.
That deal has now been torn up in favour of nuclear powered subs aided by the US and UK who will provide the technology to Australia.
The West is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific region where it has made huge territorial claims in the South and East China seas, clashed with Indian troops and repeatedly flown planes over Taiwan.