The French president, Emmanuel Macron, ha accused Scott Morrison of lying over the submarines deal, prompting the Australian prime minister to launch a furious rebuttal of what he called “slurs” and “sledging”.
Let’s take a look beneath the soundbites to try to find out what on earth has happened.
Primo, the basics. The French contract with Australia to provide 12 conventionally powered submarines has been a big deal for Francia – financially and strategically – since it was initiated in 2016. The total value of the submarine project was estimated at almost $A90bn (although that figure includes all spending associated with it).
So it is only natural that a French president would be upset when Australia revealed it had decided to scrap the contract and would instead partner with the US and the UK to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines (pending an 18-month study).
sì. The French government has taken exception to the manner in which the Aukus partnership was negotiated in secret, claiming it was “stabbed in the back” in the process and disrespected as a close partner. It has argued it was told only at the 11th hour with no genuine opportunity for consultation.
One of the encounters of most contention is Morrison’s meeting and dinner with Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris in June.
Morrison went to Paris just days after Morrison had his own trilateral meeting with Joe Biden and Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Carbis Bay in the UK. (We now know the leaders of Australia, the US and the UK were talking about what would later become the Aukus arrangement.)
We know that Australia’s concerns about the submarine programme were discussed between Morrison and Macron. Both sides also agree that Morrison raised concern over the deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region. But the two sides have different interpretations of what flowed from that.
The French ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thébault, has previously told Guardian Australia that this wasn’t meant to be the end of the conversation: “The prime minister, to our understanding, signalled that there were questions raised about the evolving situation in the region … but what was agreed is that this conversation would continue.”
Here’s the account provided by Morrison when speaking to reporters in Glasgow on Monday: "Ora, a quel punto, I made it very clear that a conventional diesel-powered submarine was not going to meet Australia’s strategic requirements. We discussed that candidly.”
But Morrison told reporters it was not up to him to flag the emerging plan B (the US- and UK-backed nuclear-propelled submarines) at that stage: “I did not discuss what other alternatives we were looking at. They were in confidence, and they were subject to the security arrangements we had about those other discussions.”
With the benefit of hindsight, maybe a little hint. Speaking to reporters shortly after the meeting in Paris in June, Morrison did not rule out walking away from the project when the next contractual milestone was reached, but he also appeared to imply the sticking points were being resolved.
Morrison said he appreciated the French president was “taking a very active role” in resolving issues with the contract. “President Macron and I have a very, very open and very transparent, and very friendly relationship where we can speak candidly to each other about these issues,” Morrison said on 16 giugno.
Asked whether he was leaving Paris more or less confident about the submarine program, Morrison said: “I leave knowing that we have properly raised the challenges that we need to address, and so it is now for us to work forward on that basis.”
Morrison told reporters on Monday that the French defence system “flew into action” the day after the dinner at the Élysée to seek to address issues with the project – including sending a French admiral to Australia “to try and save the contract”.
“So if there was no concern about the contract being under threat, Admiral Morio would never have come to Australia,” Morrison said.
Morrison said the Australian government “eventually formed the view that we would agree to disagree” and that the French Attack class submarine “would not meet our requirements”.
sì. At the end of August, just two weeks before the Aukus announcement, Australian ministers Marise Payne and Peter Dutton met by video link with their French counterparts to herald ever-strengthening ties (it was the first ever “2+2” meeting between the two sides).
According to the official joint statement – which were obviously agreed by France and Australia – the four ministers “underlined the importance of the future submarine program”.
Thebault, the French ambassador, has said it’s now apparent there was “no sincerity in the discussion”.
France complained that one of the reasons it felt blindsided was because hours earlier Australian officials had informed the French contractor of progress on the submarine contract.
In the letter, sent on 15 settembre, the director general of the future submarine program confirmed the exit of a review of one aspect of the project “has been achieved as required under the Submarine Design Contract”. But the letter also included a caveat that the “matters addressed in this correspondence do not provide any authorisation to continue work”.
At Senate estimates last week, the secretary of Australia’s defence department, Greg Moriarty, said there had been “a number of engagements with French officials about our thinking about capability requirements” but added: “I did not discuss cancellation of the Attack programme with any French official prior to the night before [the announcement]."
Moriarty described the reaction of Naval Group when briefed hours later as follows: “They were surprised and disappointed – understandably.”
Hours before Morrison’s press conference hitting back at Macron on Monday, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported on the contents of a text message the prime minister received from the French president two days before the Aukus announcement. By this account, Macron messaged Morrison to say he was not available at the time Australia had requested a call and wrote”: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?"
When asked on Monday why a decision was made to release the text message, Morrison said: “I’m not going to indulge your editorial on it.” But Morrison added that the message “made it pretty clear that [Macron] was concerned” that the contract was to be cancelled.
The release of the message appears to be designed to show the Aukus decision didn’t come out of the blue. But another reading of it is that Macron didn’t know – two days before – which way the Australian government was leaning. Morrison replied to Macron that it was important that the pair spoke. When a time couldn’t be locked in, Morrison said he texted a letter outlining the decision to Macron.
France is calling on the Australian government to propose “tangible actions” to heal the diplomatic rift.
On Monday the Australian foreign minister met for more than an hour with the French ambassador to start the process – but that effort may be undercut by some senior members of the government who have played down the significance of Australia’s decision in theatrical terms, and now by Morrison’s strong pushback at Macron’s remarks.