France on Tuesday accused Australia of using “very inelegant methods” after a text message sent by President Emmanuel Macron to Australian leader Scott Morrison was leaked in an apparent bid to imply that he knew about the collapse of a major submarine deal earlier than he maintains.
Media in Australia and Europe reported on the SMS which the French leader sent to Morrison two days before Australia announced that it had torn up a decade-old multi-billion-dollar contract with France to build a new fleet of submarines.
France, which reacted furiously to the cancellation, has always said it had been blindsided by the announcement, and Macron added to the furore at the weekend by accusing of Morrison of lying to him.
But the revelation of the text message Tuesday can be seen as suggesting Macron was less surprised by the cancellation than he has admitted.
“Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarine ambitions?”, reads the SMS sent to Morrison 48 hours before the official contract cancellation announcement which was made at a news conference.
A source close to Macron, who asked not to be named, said the leak was proof of “very inelegant methods”.
Standing by earlier assurances that Macron had not been given advance warning of the cancellation, the source told AFP the SMS did not undermine that narrative.
“On the contrary, this SMS shows that the president did not know that they were going to cancel the contract,” the source claimed.
Had a message existed that clearly showed that he did in fact know “they would have reported that instead”.
The source added: “We knew that the Australians had some issues, but they only concerned technical aspects and the timetable, as with every big contract like this one.”
It was precisely those issues that the SMS referred to, ahead of a discussion with submarine manufacturer Naval Group planned for the following day, the source said. It is not clear what response Morrison gave to the SMS.
Reports have said the SMS leak could have been engineered by Morrison’s office in retaliation for the “lying” charge.
The row also pitted Paris against the United States which agreed with Canberra to supply submarines instead of the French.
Australia announced the pact as it joined a new defence alliance with Britain and the US dubbed AUKUS, one of a series of initiatives by US President Joe Biden who views countering China as the paramount concern of the United States.
Last week, Biden admitted Friday to “clumsy” dealings with France, in a sort of mea culpa which Macron’s office said would help rebuild confidence with Washington.
“But Scott Morrison never apologised,” the source said.
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