French officials have accused Australia

France’s historic decision to recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia is far more than a diplomatic spat, analysts have warned.

The move, in protest at Canberra’s surprise decision to cancel an order for French-built submarines and its security pact with Washington and London, will affect France and Europe’s role in Nato and already strained relations with the UK.

French officials have accused Australia, the US and the UK of behaving in an underhand, duplicitous manner that has betrayed and humiliated France.

A visibly angry Jean-Yves le Drian, the French foreign minister, accused the Americans and Australians of “lies and duplicity” over the Aukus deal. And he warned: “It’s not finished.”

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Le Drian said Australia had told France that it was breaking the submarine contract and making a new deal with the US and UK just one hour before Scott Morrison, the Australian PM, announced it at a press conference.

“That is why I say there has been duplicity, contempt and lies, and when you have an ally of the stature of France, you don’t treat them like that,” Le Drian said.

Asked if there had been a failure of French intelligence in uncovering the secret deal, he replied: “The agreement project initiated by the US and Australia was decided by a small group and I’m not sure US and Australian ministers knew about it.

“When we see the US president with the Australian prime minister announce a new agreement, with Boris Johnson, the breach of trust is profound. In a real alliance you talk to each other, you don’t hide things, you respect the other party, and that is why this is a real crisis.”

Le Drian rejected suggestions that France was isolated in the European Union in its response to the Aukus deal, the foreign minister said: “I don’t believe we are alone in this affair. It’s not finished.”

Asked why France had not recalled its ambassador to the UK, Le Drian went on to say Britain’s role was “opportunistic” and described the country as “the fifth wheel on the wagon”.

“The UK accompanied this operation opportunistically,” a French diplomatic source told Reuters. “We do not need to consult in Paris with our ambassador to know what to think and what conclusions to draw from it.”

“This is far more than just a diplomatic spat. The withdrawal of ambassadors is the tip of the iceberg,” Peter Ricketts, a former permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office and former UK ambassador to France, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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“There is a deep sense of betrayal in France because this wasn’t just an arms contract, this was France setting up a strategic partnership with Australia and the Australians have now thrown that away and negotiated behind the backs of France with two Nato allies, the US and UK, to replace it with a completely different contract.

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“For the French this looks like a complete failure of trust between allies and calls into doubt what is Nato for. This puts a big rift down the middle of the Nato alliance … Britain needs a functioning Nato alliance.”

Ricketts added: “I think people underestimated the impact that this would have in France and how this would seem as a humiliation and betrayal in a year President Macron is running for election in a very tight race with the far right.”

The historic order to recall France’s ambassadors came directly from Macron. A spokesperson for the Elysée said the “seriousness” of the situation required the president’s response. “Beyond the question of the breach of a contract and its consequences, particularly in terms of jobs, there is what this decision says about the alliance strategy. [Such behaviour] is unacceptable between allies,” the Elysée said.

The French are furious at Australia’s decision to cancel a A$90bn (£48bn) contract that it signed with the French company Naval Group in 2016 for a fleet of 12 state-of-the-art attack class submarines. That deal became bogged down in cost overruns, delays and design changes. Naval Group said the new deal that will see Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines built by the US and UK, instead of those from France, was a “great disappointment”.

Le Drian had already described the trilateral Aukus security pact – including the submarine deal – as a “stab in the back”.

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“The abandoning of the ocean-class submarine project that linked Australia and France since 2016, and the announcement of a new partnership with the United States to launch studies on possible future cooperation on nuclear-powered submarines, constitute unacceptable behaviour 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 region for Europe,” he added.

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France is also furious at what it sees as the dishonesty of statements coming out of Australia, whose the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Canberra wanted nuclear submarines “with more autonomy and more discreet than the conventional submarines that France proposed”.

France says it altered the design of its nuclear submarines to diesel because that is what Australia wanted and ordered.

In terms of the Indo-Pacific partnership, France is a natural ally for Australia as it has overseas territories home to more than 1.6 million French citizens in the region. Paris also has a significant military presence there, with 8,000 soldiers and dozens of ships, including nuclear submarines, positioned in several bases.

Nathalie Goulet, an opposition member and vice-president of the French Sénat’s foreign affairs, defence and armed forces commission, said the situation was “very disturbing”. “Someone should have warned before this breach of contract … I don’t understand this couldn’t have happened overnight,” she said.

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