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French ambassador says leak of Macron text ‘new low’ as submarines rift deepens | France

The French ambassador has denounced the Australian government’s release of a private text message from Emmanuel Macron as “an unprecedented new low”, arguing other world leaders would now worry their words might be “weaponised” against them.

Jean-Pierre Thébault said the leaking of the text message from the French president was a setback “in terms of truth and trust”, and it would be “sad” if this was the Australian government’s answer to France’s request for concrete actions to heal the relationship.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, told reporters in Dubai on Wednesday he would “never make any apologies” for scrapping the French contract to deliver submarines that were “not going to do the job that Australia needed [them] to do”.

Morrison did not dispute a suggestion that his office had leaked the text message, simply saying: “Claims had been made and those claims were refuted … what is needed now is for us to move on.”

The extraordinary rift between Australia and France flows from Macron’s accusation that Morrison lied to him over plans with the US and the UK to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines as a replacement for the $90bn French project.

Morrison rejected Macron’s claim and several Australian media outlets then reported that the French president had texted the Australian prime minister two days before the Aukus announcement in mid-September to ask: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?”

Thébault said far from backing the Australian government’s position that it had been candid with France about its changing needs, the text “demonstrates that until the last minute, we didn’t know where things were heading to”.

The French ambassador told the National Press Club in Canberra the leak of the text would not help build confidence to repair the relationship.

“This is an unprecedented new low – in terms of how to proceed, and also, in terms of truth and trust,” Thébault said.

“You don’t behave like this on personal exchanges of leaders who are allies. But maybe it’s just confirmation that we were never seen as an ally.

“But doing so also sends a very worrying signal for all heads of state – beware, in Australia, there will be leaks, and what you say in confidence to your partners will be eventually used and weaponised against you one day.”

Asked whether Morrison should apologise to Macron – a suggestion made by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – the ambassador said the US had taken concrete steps to mend ties over what Joe Biden called the “clumsy” handling of the Aukus partnership.

Thébault said eating “humble pie” may “sometimes be difficult” and it was “up to everyone to make his own decision”.

The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, defended the release of the text message, suggesting Macron had triggered that action by claiming Morrison had lied.

“It [the leak] is not as extraordinary as calling the leader of another country a liar when they’re not,” Joyce told ABC TV.

The French ambassador was recalled to Paris in September after Australia scrapped a $90bn French deal in order to launch an 18-month study with the US and the UK on acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines.

Having now returned to Canberra, Thébault said the Morrison government had acted in a way that was “out of this world” and not befitting of friends, and he questioned whether any other partner could now trust “the value of Australia’s signature and commitment”.

Thébault also raised doubts about whether Australia’s new partnership with the US and the UK would deliver nuclear-propelled submarines quickly enough: “Magical thinking will not change the facts.”

And he said Australia would be scrutinised by the rest of the world over its “very specific responsibilities”, arguing the deal could have implications “in terms of our common efforts to strengthen nonproliferation norms”.

“France will always be a close and loyal friend of Australia,” he said.

“No artificial wedge, despite attempts, can be put between our people. If there is a problem today it is with certain aspects of the ‘Canberra bubble’ and its ‘secret city’ practices.”

Thébault said the defence and foreign ministers of France and Australia met just two weeks before Aukus was announced, with both sides agreeing to a joint statement that underlined the importance of the future submarine program.

“Do you agree on such a joint communique when there is the slightest doubt on something so massive as the official backbone of our cooperation? Maybe on Mars. But not on this planet,” Thébault said.

Thébault suggested that the reason the Australian government did not want to be explicit was explained by Morrison on 16 September, when the prime minister said there was never any certainty that the Aukus process would result in a deal.

Thébault said that meant it was deemed necessary to keep open the possibility of continuing the French submarine program, “and so it was mandatory to keep us in the dark, on the backburner”.

Arguing “the deceit was intentional”, Thébault said: “Because there was far more at stake than providing submarines, because it was a common agreement on sovereignty, sealed with the transmission of highly classified data, the way it was handled was a stab in the back.”

He acknowledged that the Australian government would make its own decisions when it came to national security.

“But the way this Australian government decided to turn its back on our solemn and far reaching partnership, without ever frankly consulting with France, when there were countless opportunities, without having shared frankly and openly its thoughts or without having looked for alternatives with France, is just out of this world,” Thébault said.

“Alarm bells should have rung on the likely consequences. And if it was the case, and they were disregarded, it is even worse.”

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Thébault said the Naval Group-backed project to deliver 12 conventional submarines had not been “troubled” or suffered cost blowouts, despite an “intensive smearing campaign” about the program.

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