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France recalls its ambassadors to the US and Australia over new national security partnership

<i>ANTHONY BEHAR/SIPA USA/AP</i><br/>Philippe Étienne
Sipa USA via AP
ANTHONY BEHAR/SIPA USA/AP
Philippe Étienne

By Jim Acosta, Kylie Atwood and Maegan Vazquez, CNN

The French government has immediately recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultation in response to America’s recently announced national security partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia.

Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the US, confirmed the news when reached for comment.

In a statement, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister for Europe and foreign affairs, said Friday that the move was made at the request of President Emmanuel Macron.

“This extraordinary decision reflects the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on September 15 by Australia and the United States,” Le Drian said. “The abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project that Australia and France had been working on since 2016 and the announcement of a new partnership with the United States aimed at studying the possibility of future cooperation on nuclear-powered submarines constitute unacceptable behavior among allies and partners; their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.”

It’s believed to be the first time the French have resorted to such a move in modern times, a French official told CNN.

The New York Times was first to report the news of the recalls.

Étienne met briefly with national security adviser Jake Sullivan Friday at the White House before returning to Paris, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with the French Minister of Defense on Friday morning, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during a briefing.

Kirby said it is clear there was “still much work to do in terms of our defense relationship with France,” after the talk between the two leaders. Kirby clarified, “I mean more things to work on, that there are opportunities and shared challenges and shared interests that both ministers are committed to continue to explore.”

“Ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific is a shared interest between the United States and Europe, and we will continue our close partnership with NATO, the EU and other partners on that kind of endeavor,” Kirby said.

National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said the White House has been in contact with the French government regarding the decision to recall its envoy to Washington for consultation in Paris.

“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. France is our oldest ally and one of our strongest partners, and we share a long history of shared democratic values and a commitment to working together to address global challenges.”

The French government said earlier this week that it felt betrayed when Australia pulled out of their existing multibillion-dollar defense deal, agreeing instead to attain nuclear-powered submarines through a new deal with the United States and the United Kingdom.

French Housing Minister Emmanuelle Wargon said on Saturday that France was still “awaiting explanations” over the issue. Speaking on radio station FranceInfo, she said the recall of the ambassador was a wake-up call and a necessary reaction to events that “should not occur between allies.”

“The breaking of this contract is a thunderclap and a very hard blow,” she said. “Discussions must be had so that so that these allies can make their case so that we understand and so that we can then take all the necessary steps.”

The effort to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines — a major step toward countering China as President Joe Biden works to build international backing for his approach to Beijing — is part of a new trilateral partnership among the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, dubbed “AUKUS.”

France stands to lose the equivalent of $65 billion US dollars from an existing deal to provide Australia with conventional, diesel-powered submarines.

The canceled deal with France, a major global weapons exporter, is expected to make a significant economic impact on the French defense sector. France also stands to lose out strategically in the Indo-Pacific, where the country holds significant interests.

On Thursday, after the nuclear-powered submarine deal with the US and the UK was announced, Australia formally announced it would be withdrawing from its previous contract for conventional submarines with France.

The deal with Paris had been in the works for years.

Australia previously planned to acquire 12 conventional attack-class submarines from the French shipbuilder Naval Group, which successfully beat out competing German and Japanese bids in 2016.

Jean-Pierre Thebault, France’s ambassador to Australia, said Saturday he was “very sad to be forced to leave.”

“I’m still confident in the French-Australian, Australian-French cooperation. I think this has been a huge mistake. A very, very bad handling of the partnership because it was not a contract, it was a partnership,” Thebault said as he left his residence.

“Real Aussies, people who understand what it means to be mates, what it means to look at each other’s back is for me the most important. So I’m looking forward first of all to be back because it will be a good sign that something can be done,” he added.

US officials on Friday defended the deal, and both the Americans and the Australians have indicated that the French government wasn’t blindsided by the reneging of the original contract, saying high-ranking French officials were made aware of the decision by the Australian government.

A senior administration official also said top American officials had communicated with their counterparts in France about the new agreement before and after it was announced. “I will leave it to our Australian partners to describe why they sought this new technology,” the official added.

Australia’s Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in a news conference on Thursday that the decision to choose the American nuclear-powered submarine over France’s conventional diesel submarine “is based on what is in the best interests of our national security.”

Biden attempt to thread the needle of European diplomacy and navigate a post-Brexit world has left some loyal allies suggesting Biden’s actions have ignored their needs or have been in line with those of his pro-nationalist predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

Prior to recalling the French Ambassador, Le Drian, in response to the deal, had strong words for the US, saying, “This brutal and unilateral decision resembles a lot of what Trump is doing.”

Biden is scheduled to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson next week at the White House, two officials confirmed to CNN on Thursday. And several foreign leaders are expected to visit the US for the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, but many leaders coming to the US for the assembly are still waiting to hear if they will get sessions with the President.

This story has been updated with additional details Saturday.

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CNN’s Arlette Saenz, Kevin Liptak, Ellie Kaufman, Joseph Ataman and Donald Judd contributed to this report.

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