France’s Top Diplomat in Australia Accuses Morrison of Deceit
(Bloomberg) -- France’s war of words with Australia over a scrapped A$90 billion ($67 billion) submarine deal is showing no sign of abating nearly two months later, with the ambassador saying Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government was guilty of a “stab in the back.”
“The deceit was intentional,” Jean-Pierre Thebault told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday. “These are not things which are done between partners, even less between friends. Especially in view of the strong historical ties that exist between our people and our strong political, strategic common interests for our citizens in this region.”
The ambassador’s comments come after Morrison denied French leader Emmanuel Macron’s accusation that he lied about the submarine deal, while saying he would defend his nation from “slurs.” Thebault was recalled for about three weeks after the Indo-Pacific partnership with the the U.S. and the U.K. was announced in September.
Macron has said France was unfairly kept in the dark about the the new partnership, which scuppered Australia’s 2016 deal with a French shipbuilder Naval Group to build up to 12 submarines.
He went on the attack at the weekend, telling Australian reporters on the fringes of the Group of 20 meeting in Rome that Morrison had lied to him about the submarine pact. “I don’t think” he lied, Macron said, “I know” he did. The French leader added that he had a lot of respect for Australia and its people.
Morrison shot back on Monday, telling reporters on the sidelines COP26 climate summit in Glasgow that Macron’s comments were slurs against Australia.
“The statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs that have been placed on Australia -- not me, I’ve got broad shoulders, I can deal with that -- but those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging at Australia,” he said.
The tit-for-tat comments show the lingering fallout from the defense accord struck between the three English-speaking nations. The U.S. is now selling nuclear-powered submarines to Australia -- something French diplomats said Paris could’ve also done.
The spat has also cast doubt on Morrison’s credibility ahead of elections that must be held by May, with polls showing his conservative government trails to the main Labor opposition.
Amid international criticism that his government isn’t doing enough to implement hard targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also cast some doubt on the prime minister’s aspirations for Australia to take a leadership role on the global world stage. Morrison has been seeking to rally so-called “like-minded democracies” to form multilateral buffers against Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.
When asked about the spat at a press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: “Australia should not only give honest answers to its partner’s questioning, but also honestly face up to the international community’s concerns, earnestly fulfill its non-proliferation obligations, and stop such irresponsible behavior as creating bloc confrontation and proliferation risks.”
Morrison, who has seen relations with Australia’s largest trading partner China nosedive under his watch, said on Monday the deal with France was scrapped in part because of delays in the project and surging costs.
“These were matters that we raised quite regularly and indeed I raised with President Macron at each opportunity when we either spoke over the phone or we had our bilateral meetings going over a number of years,” he said.
Still, diplomatic eyebrows have been raised in Paris and Washington after text messages sent from Macron to Morrison in the lead up to the announcement that the submarine deal was being scuppered appeared in Australian newspapers this week.
France’s Thebault said Morrison’s decision to scrap the submarine deal without giving more warning wasn’t a thing that should be done between partners and friends. He said he believed there had been a deliberate campaign within Australia to smear France’s Attack Class submarines in a bid to create an “easy scapegoat to justify the change of footing that was a long time in the making.”
“What, after such events, can any partner of Australia now think?,” he said. “Is this the value of Australia’s signature and commitment? Reneging on this commitment was a unilateral act from this Australian government.”
Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull -- who represented the same ruling Liberal party -- has told reporters at the COP26 summit that “Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies.”
“When a prime minister behaves disingenuously or dissembles or is dishonest, it will reflect on his or her credibility, it will reflect on the credibility of their party and the government,” Turnbull was cited as saying by The Age newspaper. “But when you do that as leader of the nation, internationally, it reflects on us all.”
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