French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian  (Photo: Reuters)

France recalls ambassadors to US, Australia over submarine deal

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had recalled Philippe Etienne from Washington and Jean-Pierre Thebault from Canberra for consultation on instructions from French President Emmanuel Macron, a decision “justified by the exceptional gravity” of the announcement this week of the trilateral pact among the three English-speaking allies.

Mr. Le Drian said the agreement announced Wednesday constituted “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners.” As part of the deal with the U.K. and the U.S., Australia said it would cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy submarines from France.

The French government will determine the date of the ambassadors’ return to their posts. An embassy official said there was no known precedent for the recall of an envoy from Washington or Canberra.

Australia views France’s recall of its ambassador with regret and understands its deep disappointment with the decision to cancel the submarines contract, which was taken on national security grounds, said a spokesperson for Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne.

“Australia values its relationship with France, which is an important partner and a vital contributor to stability, particularly in the Indo-Pacific,” the spokesperson said. “This will not change.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that U.S. officials have been in contact with their French counterparts and intend to continue high-level discussions on the issue, including next week at the United Nations General Assembly.

U.S. officials have said the French government was advised of the trilateral deal ahead of time, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly on Thursday described France as a vital partner in diplomatic and military theaters across the globe.

“We place fundamental value on that relationship, on their partnership, and we will carry it forward in the days ahead,” Mr. Blinken said.

But a French official said Friday the government had only learned of the agreement in the press on Wednesday and “we had no previous consultation” with either the U.S. or the Australians. Mr. Le Drian Thursday said the agreement was a “stab in the back.”

Adding to France’s sense of betrayal is the fact that Washington has asked its ally over the past decade to join the U.S. in its effort to have a more robust presence in the Pacific.

The extraordinary diplomatic rift is another sore spot for Mr. Blinken after the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The State Department has been criticized for the slow pace at which diplomats processed applications for visas for Afghans who worked for the U.S. military and government; the State Department has acknowledged the majority of applicants were left behind.

The French ambassador traditionally has been a prominent diplomatic presence in official Washington, living in a grand mansion in the same Kalorama neighborhood that has housed founder Jeff Bezos, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and Ivanka Trump, a daughter of former President Donald Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner.

The embassy’s Bastille Day celebrations are extensive, and officials had planned a party Friday commemorating an American Revolutionary naval battle involving French ships. The embassy canceled the party Thursday.

A White House official said the U.S. had been in touch with the French government on the decision to recall Mr. Etienne for consultations.

“While we regret that they have taken this step, we 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,” the official said. “France is our oldest ally and one of our strongest partners, and we share a long history, democratic values, and a commitment to working together to address global challenges.”

The move marked the first time that France recalled its ambassador to the U.S. in their nearly two and half centuries of diplomatic relations.

The diplomatic crisis rivals the tensions leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when France opposed the U.S. action, and cafeterias in Congress renamed french fries “Freedom Fries.”

French officials remain mystified as to why Australia decided to break the contract, dubbed by the French media as the “contract of the century.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the nonnuclear submarines being supplied by France weren’t up to the challenge of countering the growing assertiveness of China in the Pacific. But French officials said the Australians never asked them to consider supplying nuclear-propelled submarines, which are a part of the French arsenal.

Such contretemps are rare between the U.S. and its longstanding allies.

In 2019, Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., Kim Darroch, resigned after the publication of secret cables in which he criticized then President Donald Trump’s administration as dysfunctional. Mr. Trump lashed out at Mr. Darroch, a veteran British diplomat, calling him “very stupid” and “wacky” and saying he would no longer work with him.

But Russia, a longtime adversary, recalled its ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, for consultations in March, while the Kremlin determined the next steps in relations with the U.S. under the Biden administration.

That action came a day after a U.S. intelligence report for the first time directly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering a wide-ranging influence operation to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election, intending to hurt Mr. Biden’s campaign. Mr. Antonov returned to Washington in June.

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