French ambassador blasts Scott Morrison over submarine deal

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The French Ambassador has blasted Scott Morrison for scrapping a deal to buy 12 French submarines in an extraordinary speech laying out his country’s view of the diplomatic crisis.

Jean-Pierre Thebault accused the Australian Government of a ‘stab in the back’ and said Mr Morrison intended to deceive France before he announced a nuclear submarine partnership with the US and UK in September.

‘A stab in the back. On September 16, this Australian Government abruptly announced the cancellation of the future submarine program. This decision was deliberately kept secret for months, even years,’ Mr Thebault told the National Press Club in Canberra. 

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Jean-Pierre Thebault (pictured today) accused the Australian Government of a 'stab in the back' and said Mr Morrison intended to deceive his country's long-standing ally

Jean-Pierre Thebault (pictured today) accused the Australian Government of a ‘stab in the back’ and said Mr Morrison intended to deceive his country’s long-standing ally

Mr Thebault said Australia never consulted France about the possibility of nuclear-powered subs and instead turned its back on its ally to announce a new AUKUS partnership.

‘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, or having looked for alternatives with France, is just out of this world,’ he said.  

The ambassador, who was recalled to Paris in a highly unusual move after the deal was scrapped, explained why he thinks Mr Morrison did not tell President Emmanuel Macron in advance. 

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‘Probably the reason for which the Australian Government did not want to be explicit was frankly explained by the Prime Minister himself on 16 September,’ he said. 

‘I quote, ”there was never ever any certainty at the long and painstaking AUKUS process would result in where we are now. And indeed, if we were unable to access this technology, then the attack class submarine is the best submarine that we have been able to utilise”.

France's Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault arrives at Sydney Airport before leaving the country on September 18

France’s Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault arrives at Sydney Airport before leaving the country on September 18

Mr Thebault explained: ‘Confronted with the high uncertainties which are not finished surrounding the likely closure of an alternative deal, it was a necessary to continue the possibility of continuing the future submarine program. It was mandatory to keep us on the backburner. The deceit was intentional.’ 

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The ambassador explained that France was left furious because ‘the attack class program was always far more than a contract.’

He described the deal, which involved sharing ‘one of most classified and sensitive defence programs’ as an ‘unprecedented act of trust’.

‘It was bringing our relationship with Australia to a level never reached before. Politically, and technologically. Fully complementing Australia’s and France’s historical alliance with the US,’ he said. 

I do respect sovereign choices. But you have to respect allies and partners. And do I think what has happened is detrimental to the reputation of your country.’ 

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Mr Morrison announced his decision to cancel the French submarine contract in a joint press conference with the Boris Johnson and Joe Biden on September 15.

Mr Morrison wants US or UK-style nuclear-powered submarines, which are faster, stealthier and can stay at sea longer than conventional submarines, by 2040. 

France was blindsided by the move and said it was ‘stabbed in the back’. 

After Mr Macron accused Mr Morrison of lying to him on Monday, the Prime Minister hit back saying he would not cop ‘sledging.’  

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The French president had claimed he was not informed about Australia’s plans to tear up the defence contract until moments before the AUKUS security pact was revealed to the world. 

But in a message believed to have been leaked by Mr Morrison’s office to show President Macron knew the agreement was on shaky ground, the French leader wrote: ‘Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?’   

An awkward handshake in Rome between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron (left) at the G20 summit in Rome this week

An awkward handshake in Rome between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron (left) at the G20 summit in Rome this week

A secret leaked text message (pictured) appears to show that Emmanuel Macron was given warning that Australia would torpedo its $90billion submarine deal with France

A secret leaked text message (pictured) appears to show that Emmanuel Macron was given warning that Australia would torpedo its $90billion submarine deal with France

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While Mr Morrison had conceded Mr Macron was not aware of negotiations with the US and the UK, due to their confidential nature, he says the French leader was told as early as June that Australia was consulting on other options for submarines. 

He denied lying to Mr Macron but Mr Thebault said the President was ‘misled’ and this amounted to the same thing as a lie among allies.

‘Was the president lied to? Yes, he was,’ he said.

‘Maybe there’s a difference between misleading and lying. But, you know, among heads of states and governments, when you mislead a friend and an aIly, you lie to him.’    

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Mr Morrison claims France should have realised the deal was on the rocks – but Mr Thebault said this was ‘fiction’ and used a telling example to show that France was deceived.

‘This is fiction. What is a hard fact is that still on the third of August, French and Australian ministers of foreign affairs and defence, had a dialogue, and they agreed a joint communique. 

‘It was available to the public and widely acclaimed for its ambition. It agreed the following sentence, ”the two countries underline the importance of the future submarine program”. 

‘Do you agree on such a communique when there’s the slightest doubt on something so massive as the official backbone of your co-operation? Maybe on Mars, but not that I know on this planet.’ 

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Why is Australia building nuclear-powered submarines? 

 Why nuclear submarines?

Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors which produce heat that creates high-pressured steam to spin turbines and power the boat’s propeller. 

They can run for about 20 years before needing to refuel, meaning food supplies are the only limit on time at sea.

The boats are also very quiet, making it harder for enemies to detect them and can travel at top speed – about 40kmh – for longer than diesel-powered subs.

The first nuclear submarines were put to sea by the United States in the 1950s. They are now also in use by Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India. 

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A senior US defence official told reporters in Washington DC: ‘This will give Australia the capability for their submarines to basically deploy for a longer period, they’re quieter, they’re much more capable. 

‘They will allow us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.’

Zack Cooper, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said nuclear submarines would hugely boost Australia’s military capability.

‘They are going to be much, much more capable in the large, expansive ocean that is Australia has to deal with,’ he told the ABC.  

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Will Australia have nuclear weapons? 

Scott Morrison made it clear that the nuclear-power submarines will not have nuclear missiles on board.

Australia has never produced nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 which prevents non-nuclear states which don’t already have them from developing nuclear weapons.

Mr Morrison also said the Australia has no plans to build nuclear power stations which are widely used around the world. 

‘But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,’ he said.

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‘And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’  

Are they safe? 

The nuclear reactors are shielded from the rest of the submarine in a separate section to protect the crew from dangerous radiation. 

The US has an excellent safety record with its nuclear-powered fleet although early Russian subs suffered a few accidents which caused 20 servicemen to die from radiation exposure between 1960 and 1985.

At the end of their 20-year lifetimes, the contaminated parts of nuclear reactors need to be disposed deep underground in special waste storage cells. 

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Anti-nuclear campaigners say any leaks of radioactive waste could lead to an environmental disaster. 

Greens leader Adam Bandt called the submarines ‘floating Chernobyls’ in reference to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union.

Why now?

Australia needs to replace its six ageing Collins-class submarines. 

In 2016 it signed a deal with French Company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric attack subs – but the parties were in dispute over the amount of building that would be done in Australia.

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That deal has now been torn up in favour of nuclear powered subs aided by the US and UK who will provide the technology to Australia.

The West is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific region where it has made huge territorial claims in the South and East China seas, clashed with Indian troops and repeatedly flown planes over Taiwan.

Mr Morrison wants Australia to have serious defence capability to deter China from encroaching in the Pacific and long-range nuclear submarines are just the ticket. 

China has vastly built up its military in the past few years and now possesses six Shang-class nuclear powered attack submarines, equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles.    

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