The head of the French defence contractor Naval Group has reiterated the company’s “astonishment and stupefaction” at being told a multi-billion dollar submarine contract with Australia was being torn up hours after it was reassured the deal was on track.
Pierre Eric Pommellet said the firm had been kept completely in the dark about talks to dump the French deal and sign a new one with the United States and the United Kingdom, dubbed Aukus. “In the morning we understood our design conformed to their (Australia’s) needs and in the afternoon we learned they wanted to change the design,” he said in an account of events on 15 September.
Speaking at an open day to promote the defence firm’s “naval innovation” – including state-of-the-art underwater drones – Pommellet said he was not going to rehash the row that erupted last month over Canberra’s surprise decision to cancel the A$90bn (£48bn) submarine deal signed in 2016 or answer questions about it.
“I think you all know the story,” he said, adding that the decision was not viewed as a reflection on Naval Group’s work but was as “a political strategic decision” made in secret by a very small number of people high up in the Australian government.
“We satisfied all the demands of the program including on cost and delay,” he said of the proposal to supply 12 diesel-electric submarines.
Asked what happens next – Naval Group is believed to be seeking substantial compensation – he said: “It’s a contractual situation and is therefore defined by the contract. We respected the contract. The contract foresaw this situation and obviously the company will defend its interests firmly.”
On Wednesday, Pommellet and Bernard Emié, head of France’s external intelligence and security agency, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) in France, gave evidence to the Senate committee looking into the defence debacle.
Earlier, at a cross-party meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee at the Assemblée Nationale, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced the French ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thébault would be returning to Canberra but did not give a date when.
As a response to the Aukus announcement, Thébault was recalled along with France’s ambassador to Washington in an unprecedented move.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, said he welcomed France’s decision to return its ambassador to Canberra, adding that he looked forward to “taking the relationship forward”.
Morrison told reporters on Thursday the Australia-France relationship was “bigger than a contract”. Australia welcomed France’s presence and influence in the Indo-Pacific, he said.
“So it’s a matter of basically picking up on all the things we were working on and continuing on with them because they’re very significant. They’re wide-ranging. They’re very much in our interests and France’s interests and we look forward to just getting on with that job.”
Macron is not believed to have spoken to Morrison since the fallout over the contract; an Elysée spokesperson said the country’s ambassador would return to Canberra with a clear framework for future talks.