Australia has said it “notes with regret” France’s extraordinary decision to recall its ambassador over the scrapping of a submarine contract – part of the Aukus military deal that experts said could damage relations for years and have serious broader consequences.
A spokesperson for Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said: “Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests.
“Australia values its relationship with France, which is an important partner and a vital contributor to stability, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. This will not change.”
The spokesperson said Australia and France share many issues of interest and “we look forward to engaging with France again”.
However, observers said France’s decision to recall its ambassadors to Australia and the United States was evidence of the depth of opprobrium felt by the European power, an anger exacerbated by the clandestine and clumsy handling of the announcement.
It is understood to likely be the first in a series of protests from Paris.
As the centrepiece of a new “Aukus” security pact between Australia, the US and the UK, dramatically announced this week, Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines using US technology, unilaterally tearing up a $90bn contract with France to build 12 conventional-powered submarines.
The new alliance is aimed at countering China’s rising military presence and influence in the Pacific, but it has infuriated the French, who were given almost no warning, and who have described the move as a “stab in the back”.
Recalling the ambassadors, foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the new deal, and the abandonment of France, was “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners – the consequences of which affect the very conception that we have of our alliances, our partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe”.
The recalled ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thebault, said Australia’s decision had “been a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership, because it wasn’t a contract, it was a partnership that was supposed to be based on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity”.
“I would like to run into a time machine, if possible, and be in a situation where we don’t end up in such an incredible, clumsy, inadequate, unAustralian situation,” Thebault said.
Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Lowy Institute, told the Guardian while Australia’s submarine deal with the French state-owned Naval group had been plagued by delays, cost over-runs and “misaligned expectations”, the manner of abandonment was “deeply humiliating to France”.
“This was much more than just a commercial deal, this was France’s flagship project in the Indo-Pacific. And the nature of the deal – an Anglospheric trilateral partnership – and the manner it which it was done, where it appears the French weren’t consulted, was deeply humiliating to France,” he said.
The Aukus announcement could also have immediate broader ramifications.
“We’re having trade negotiations with Australia,” France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, told France 24, referring to ongoing talks on an Australia-EU free trade deal. “I don’t see how we can trust our Australian partners.”
France and the US have had significant diplomatic disputes previously, notably during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Iraq war in 2003, though neither of those has resulted in ambassadors being withdrawn.
Lemahieu said: “The offence is most acutely felt from Australia, especially given how much energy multiple presidents, and in particular, [Emmanuel] Macron, has dedicated to this.”
It could take years for the relationship between France and Australia to stabilise.
“The French have long memories,” Lemahieu said. “France has to be careful though not to overplay its hand. Their anger is legitimate and understandable but mustn’t be allowed to take control. But even once relations are normalised, this will leave a lasting legacy, an element of trust has probably irretrievably been lost.”
Paris regards itself as a significant power in the Indo-Pacific, with Pacific territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia giving it a strategic and military foothold unrivalled by any other European country.
“If Australia can alienate the major advocate for an EU Indo-Pacific strategy, what hope have we got in convincing Indonesia or other regional middle powers of the inclusiveness of the concept?” Lemahieu said.
Indonesia has already indicated its disquiet with Australia’s decision, saying it “is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”.
Prof John Blaxland, senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said Australia needed to be working to repair the relationship with France.
“We owe them probably about $3bn in penalties over the broken deal,” he told the ABC, and suggested Australia could propose leasing from France some of its Barracuda submarines to cover the capability gap before the new nuclear submarines arrive.
“Let’s do something creative and mend bridges with France. France is an enduring Pacific power, let’s not forget. It has French territories in not just New Caledonia, but in Tahiti and in the Indian Ocean. So we have to make that relationship work and it’s in our interests to make that work.”
Jean-Pierre Thebault, the French ambassador to Australia, and Philippe Etienne, his counterpart in Washington, will return to Paris for “consultations”, France announced late on Friday. France has not recalled its UK ambassador.
The withdrawal of ambassadors, usually an action of last resort between countries during a crisis, and an exceedingly rare action between allies.
Australia’s leader of the opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, said on Saturday: “This isn’t the first time [Australian prime minister Scott] Morrison has blindsided an international partner or failed to do the diplomatic leg work before an announcement.
“The Morrison-Joyce government must outline what steps it is taking to repair this important relationship.”