The French president has told the Australian prime minister that the scrapping of a multibillion-dollar submarine contract “broke the relationship of trust” and said Canberra should propose “tangible actions” to heal a diplomatic rift.
In their first phone call since Australia dumped the submarine plans, Emmanuel Macron also encouraged Scott Morrison to adopt a more ambitious climate policy, including a commitment “to cease production and consumption of coal at the national level and abroad”, according to a French government readout of the conversation.
France has said it was “betrayed”, “stabbed in the back” and “deceived” over Australia’s decision to dump a French-backed submarine project worth up to $A90bn (£48bn).
In mid-September, Australia announced it would work with the US and the UK to acquire at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines in a partnership to be known as Aukus. France temporarily recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US in protest.
The French government’s statement on Thursday’s phone call said Macron “recalled that Australia’s unilateral decision to scale back the French-Australian strategic partnership by putting an end to the ocean-class submarine programme in favour of another as-yet unspecified project broke the relationship of trust between our two countries.
“The situation of the French businesses and their subcontractors, including Australian companies, affected by this decision will be given our utmost attention,” the French statement said.
“It is now up to the Australian government to propose tangible actions that embody the political will of Australia’s highest authorities to redefine the basis of our bilateral relationship and continue joint action in the Indo-Pacific.”
Morrison – who is flying to Rome for the G20 summit this weekend before Cop26 in Glasgow – was also urged to take stronger action over the climate crisis, the statement said.
Macron, it said, had encouraged Morrison “to adopt ambitious measures commensurate with the climate challenge, in particular the ratcheting up of the nationally determined contribution, the commitment to cease production and consumption of coal at the national level and abroad, and greater Australian support to the International Solar Alliance”.
Morrison’s office issued a statement about an hour after the French one, and struck a much more conciliatory tone, saying the prime minister was “was pleased to be able to speak with President Macron”.
“They had a candid discussion on the bilateral relationship,” the Australian statement said. “The prime minister looks forward to future collaborations on our shared interests, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.”
The Australian statement said Morrison “took the opportunity to inform the president about Australia’s commitment to deliver net zero emissions by 2050”.
It is understood the discussion followed a letter Morrison sent to Macron earlier this month requesting a call. Morrison’s departure from Canberra to fly to Rome was delayed to allow the call to take place.
Morrison this week announced his government had adopted a target of net zero emissions by 2050, bowing to long-term diplomatic pressure. It has declined, however, to formally increase Australia’s 2030 target of a 26% to 28% cut on 2005 levels, amid divisions within the coalition government. Instead, it is “projecting” it will achieve a reduction of up to 35% by that date.
The National party – the rural and regional-based junior coalition partner – has vowed to protect Australia’s coal industry.
The statement on the call was issued hours after Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said she regretted “the deep disappointment that France feels” over the scrapping of the submarine contract.
Payne said she planned to meet the French ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thébault, who was recalled to Paris at the height of the diplomatic crisis. Payne said Thébault would finish his period of quarantine this weekend and the pair would meet on Monday “as part of the process of addressing these concerns”.
Payne told a senate committee in Canberra she had “heard very acutely what the French government is saying in two languages” but dismissed the idea France could have been given a heads-up earlier than 15 September – hours before the formal announcement of Aukus.
She said the decision to cancel the French deal and work with the US and UK on nuclear-powered submarines related to “the most sensitive issues at the heart of our sovereign defence strategy”.
“It was the judgment of the government that that sensitivity precluded broader information sharing substantially in advance of the announcement,” she said.
The Australian government has faced criticism from the Labor opposition for failing to do the diplomatic legwork before announcing the decision.
The leader of the Labor party in the Senate, Penny Wong, said on Thursday: “I think that the thing that potentially is risky for the relationship [with France] is not just that we’ve done this, it’s how they feel we’ve done it. They feel deceived – it’s quite clear from public statements.”
Morrison has said the decision was made because of the worsening strategic outlook in the Indo-Pacific, and concerns about whether conventional submarines would be suitable in that context.