France’s historic decision to recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia is far more than a diplomatic spat, analysts have warned.
The move, in protest at Canberra’s surprise decision to cancel an order for French-built submarines and its security pact with Washington and London, will affect France and Europe’s role in Nato and already strained relations with the UK.
French officials have accused Australia, the US and the UK of behaving in an underhand, duplicitous manner that has betrayed and humiliated France.
“This is far more than just a diplomatic spat, the withdrawal of ambassadors is the tip of the iceberg,” Peter Ricketts, a former permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office and former UK ambassador to France, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“There is a deep sense of betrayal in France because this wasn’t just an arms contract, this was France setting up a strategic partnership with Australia and the Australians have now thrown that away and negotiated behind the backs of France with two Nato allies, the US and UK, to replace it with a completely different contract.
“For the French this looks like a complete failure of trust between allies and calls into doubt what is Nato for. This puts a big rift down the middle of the Nato alliance … Britain needs a functioning Nato alliance.”
Ricketts added: “I think people underestimated the impact that this would have in France and how this would seem as a humiliation and betrayal in a year President Macron is running for election in a very tight race with the far right.”
The historic order to recall France’s ambassadors came directly from Macron. A spokesperson for the Elysée said the “seriousness” of the situation required the president’s response. “Beyond the question of the breach of a contract and its consequences, particularly in terms of jobs, there is what this decision says about the alliance strategy. [Such behaviour] is unacceptable between allies,” the Elysée said.
In an angry statement on Friday evening, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said: “This exceptional decision is justified because of the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on 15 September by Australia and the United States.”
The French are furious at Australia’s decision to cancel a A$90bn (£48bn) contract it signed with the French company Naval Group in 2016 for a fleet of 12 state-of-the-art attack class submarines. That deal became bogged down in cost overruns, delays and design changes. Naval Group said the new deal that will see Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines built by the US and UK, instead of those from France, was a “great disappointment”.
“The abandoning of the ocean-class submarine project that linked Australia and France since 2016, and the announcement of a new partnership with the United States to launch studies on possible future cooperation on nuclear-powered submarines, constitute unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners, the consequences of which affect the very conception we have of our alliances, our partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific region for Europe,” he added.
France is also furious at what it sees as the dishonesty of statements coming out of Australia, whose the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Canberra wanted nuclear submarines “with more autonomy and more discreet than the conventional submarines that France proposed”.
France says it altered the design of its nuclear submarines to diesel because that is what Australia wanted and ordered.
In terms of the Indo-Pacific partnership, France is a natural ally for Australia as it has overseas territories home to more than 1.6 million French citizens in the region. Paris also has a significant military presence there, with 8,000 soldiers and dozens of ships, including nuclear submarines, positioned in several bases.
Nathalie Goulet, an opposition member and vice-president of the French Sénat’s foreign affairs, defence and armed forces commission, said the situation was “very disturbing”.
“Someone should have warned before this breach of contract … I don’t understand this couldn’t have happened overnight,” she said.
“It’s a failure for industry, intelligence and communication and a public humiliation … and nobody likes to be humiliated, even the French.”
It is the first time France has recalled a US ambassador; the two countries have been allies since the US war of independence. France also cancelled a gala due to be held on Friday to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Chesapeake Bay, a decisive event in the war, which ended with the French fleet’s victory over the British on 5 September 1781.
A White House official told Reuters that the US regretted the French decision and said Washington had been in close touch with Paris. The official said the US would be engaged in the coming days to resolve differences between the two countries.
The UK had acted in an opportunistic manner, a French diplomatic source said on Friday.
“The UK accompanied this operation opportunistically,” the source told Reuters. “We do not need to consult in Paris with our ambassador to know what to think and what conclusions to draw from it.”
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, in Washington, said she understood the “disappointment” in Paris and hoped to work with France to ensure it understands “the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work that we want to continue to do together”.