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Australia made ‘huge’ mistake cancelling submarine deal, says French ambassador

Australia has made a “huge” diplomatic error, the French ambassador said after Canberra ditched a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with France.

Jean-Pierre Thebault was recalled to Paris along with the French ambassador to the US after Australia opted for a new deal with America and Britain, cancelling the deal signed in 2016 for France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines.

“I think this has 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,” Mr Thebault said before leaving Canberra.

Australia on Thursday joined the US and UK in Aukus, a trilateral security partnership, which will at first work to deliver eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.

France has said it was not given sufficient warning of the $90bn (£65bn) deal’s cancellation and that the Aukus announcement was “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners”.

Mr Thebault on Saturday said he was “very sad to be forced to leave”.

“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 un-Australian situation,” he said.

Australia said it regretted the recall of the French ambassador, that it valued the relationship with France and would keep engaging with Paris on other issues.

“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” a spokesperson for Marise Payne, the Foreign Affairs minister said in a statement.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said France was a ‘vital ally’ and that the United States would be engaged in resolving the differences in coming days.

Relations between Australia and France have sunk to their lowest point since 1995, when Canberra protested France’s decision to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific and recalled its ambassador.

Public opinion in France, where Emmanuel Macron is expected to seek a second term in an election due next year, has soured on Australia and the United States.

“You can understand for geopolitical reasons Australia getting closer to other anglophone countries like the United States and Britain,” said Louis Maman, a Parisian surgeon out for a stroll on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday.

“But there was a real contract and I think there was an alliance and a friendship between Australia and France. It’s spoiling a friendship,” he said. “I took it as a betrayal.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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