France has recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra for consultations, in a diplomatic protest against a new security pact under which Australia will buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US and cancel its existing contract with Paris.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, French foreign minister, issued a statement on Friday night saying he had been told to make the protest by President Emmanuel Macron.
The so-called Aukus deal between the Australia, the UK and the US “constitutes unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners, whose consequences touch the very foundation of what we do with our alliances and our partnerships and on the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe”, he said.
France is particularly incensed at being excluded from the deal because it has had close military co-operation with each of the three countries involved in the new strategic arrangement, including anti-terrorist operations in the African Sahel and Afghanistan.
Macron has also taken the lead in pushing the EU to do more for its own defence by promoting “strategic autonomy”, and has worked to prove to Australia and the US that France is a power in the Pacific. It has island territories there, including French Polynesia, across vast expanses of the ocean, as well as almost 2m citizens and 7,000 troops.
“We have been in close touch with our French partners on their decision to recall Ambassador [Philippe] Étienne to Paris for consultations. While we regret that they have taken this step, we will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance,” a White House official said on Friday.
“France is our oldest ally and one of our strongest partners, and we share a long history, democratic values, and a commitment to working together to address global challenges”.
Withdrawing ambassadors is a highly unusual protest among allies, and is usually reserved for use against states deemed to have taken hostile or unacceptable actions that affect the nation making the protest.
“This exceptional decision is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on September 15 by Australia and the United States,” Le Drian said.
The Aukus deal — announced by Joe Biden, US president, Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, and Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister — is aimed at strengthening defence co-operation in the face of a rising China.
Leaders of the US and the UK had tried to mollify the French over the impact of the deal and reassure Paris of its continued importance as an ally.
On Thursday Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said: “We co-operate incredibly closely with France on many shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific but also beyond, around the world. We’re going to continue to do so. We place fundamental value on that relationship, on that partnership.”
However, one French complaint was about the complete lack of consultation that preceded the surprise announcement of Aukus. Just as Biden failed to inform France, the UK and other allies when the US decided to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan — triggering an initially chaotic evacuation from Kabul airport — so he and Morrison kept France in the dark about Aukus until the news had already started to leak on the day of the announcement.
The White House did not give France notice until after it had already briefed the media in Washington.
Australia said it understood France’s disappointment but would continue to work closely with the country.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington