(Bloomberg) -- France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia in a diplomatic slap intended to convey its anger over a deal forged in secrecy that saw Paris lose a multibillion-dollar submarine contract.
While France and the U.S. have at times been at odds on global affairs, including over the Iraq War in 2003, Paris has never gone so far as to remove its envoy to Washington, according to senior French diplomats who declined to speculate how long the envoys would be gone.
It’s also unclear whether more rebukes are planned and if France is expecting a U.S. overture in order to move on. French officials have already canceled a gala in Washington and Baltimore this week meant to celebrate Franco-American ties.
“There has been duplicity, contempt and lies,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on France 2 television on Saturday. “You can’t play that way in an alliance.”
The stunning decision comes two days after Australia’s Scott Morrison unveiled plans to buy nuclear-powered submarines in a joint announcement with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The new partnership effectively sinks Australia’s 2016 deal with French shipbuilder Naval Group for as many as 12 conventional submarines in a project that had gone over budget but seemed secure.
Le Drian made the announcement on the envoys late Friday, denouncing the deal as “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners, the consequences of which affect the very conception we have of our alliances, our partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.”
He added a dig at the U.K. on Saturday, saying there’s no need to recall the ambassador to London because France is “familiar with Britain’s permanent opportunism” and the U.K.’s role in overturning the submarine deal was more like a “fifth wheel.”
Read more: Biden Echoes Trump in Upsetting Allies as France Recalls Envoys
Emily Horne, a National Security Council spokesperson, said in a statement on Friday evening that “we have been in close touch with our French partners on their decision to recall Ambassador Etienne to Paris for consultations. We understand their position and will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance.”
And a spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement that the country “values its relationship” with France, and that the contract decision announced this week was made in accordance with “clear and communicated national security interests.”
So far, the French ire has largely been met with silence and a bit of bafflement by European partners, according to government officials. One senior EU diplomat dismissed the spat as a bilateral dispute over a defense contract that didn’t have wider regional implications.
The loss of the Australian submarine deal is a personal blow for President Emmanuel Macron. In June, Macron invited Morrison to Paris after the Group of Seven summit, and the two discussed the contract with state-owned Naval Group, focusing on delays and pricing, two people familiar with the discussions said.
From the French perspective, there was never a suggestion that Australia was about to ditch the contract, look for other partners, or had second thoughts. Two French officials describe it as the typical discussions befitting a deal of that size and that Macron felt he had responded to Morrison’s queries.
Read more: China Decries Arms Race as U.S. Allies Unite on Nuclear Subs
Macron and Biden have previously had a warm relationship.
The French president publicly rejoiced at the G-7 meeting in June that America was “back” and ready to work with European partners, after difficult years under former U.S. President Donald Trump.
If France had any suspicion the submarine deal was in danger, two French officials said, it would never have signed a road map with Australia only two weeks ago, in which they “committed to deepen defense industry cooperation” and “underlined the importance of the future submarine program.”
How the communication went down with all the parties involved is still up in the air. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that high-level U.S. officials discussed the Australia partnership with French counterparts before its public announcement. Officials in the U.K. and the U.S. have said it was for Australia to warn France.
Australia, for its part, justified the cancellation of the French contract by its fundamental need for nuclear-powered rather than diesel submarines in a changing security environment as China expands its military clout in the Indo-Pacific region. In short, it wasn’t personal.
But the French, by their reaction, see it differently.
(Updates with French foreign minister’s comments in fourth and sixth paragraphs.)
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