France to Return Ambassador to Australia After Submarines Fracas

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France said it would send its ambassador back to Australia, as the allies sought to mend a major rift caused when Canberra scuttled a lucrative French submarine deal to join a new security pact with the U.S. and U.K.

France recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra last month after the announcement of the new AUKUS partnership, under which Australia would receive U.S. nuclear-powered submarine technology, supplanting the need for an existing order for French submarines powered by diesel engines.

France’s ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Étienne, returned to Washington in late September.

On Thursday, Australian officials welcomed the impending return of French Ambassador

Jean-Pierre Thebault

as a step toward repairing ties. French Foreign Minister

Jean-Yves Le Drian

said Mr. Thebault has a mandate to help reformulate France’s relationship with Australia, but to also ensure French interests are protected in the scrapping of the multibillion-dollar submarine deal that he had earlier called a “stab in the back.”

France will want to maximize its payout from the canceled agreement but also needs to maintain ties with Australia in the Indo-Pacific, said Hervé Lemahieu, research director at Australia’s Lowy Institute, an international-policy think tank.

“As genuine as their heated opposition to AUKUS is, it is also a negotiating strategy for maximizing concessions as a condition for normalizing bilateral ties,” Mr. Lemahieu said.

France sees itself as a naval power in the Indo-Pacific. It has an important military base in New Caledonia, a French island group in the Pacific.

Voters there are set to participate in a referendum on independence in December. Independence, which security experts say carries risk for Australia and France as China seeks to increase its own influence in the region, was rejected in referendums held in 2018 and 2020.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday he was pleased the ambassador would return, but played down the likelihood of further concessions to smooth relations.

Mr. Thebault at Sydney airport in September.



Photo:

David Gray/Associated Press

“It’s not a matter, frankly, of what additional things we’re putting on our cooperation,” he told reporters. “The Australia-France relationship is bigger than a contract. They have a longstanding commitment [in the Indo-Pacific] and work with Australia across a whole range of different issues.”

Mr. Morrison has said the nonnuclear submarines in the French deal weren’t up to the challenge of countering the growing assertiveness of China in the Pacific. French officials said Australia never asked them to consider supplying nuclear-propelled submarines, which are a part of the French arsenal.

U.S. Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

met Tuesday with French officials including Mr. Le Drian in an effort to repair the relationship with America’s oldest ally. The meetings yielded promises to deepen cooperation, but no specific commitments.

Australia’s trade minister sought to meet with his French counterpart during a trip to Paris, but it was unable to be arranged, an Australian trade department spokesman said Thursday.

Write to Rhiannon Hoyle at rhiannon.hoyle@wsj.com

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