Image source, Reuters
Australian PM Scott Morrison has escalated a row with France over a scrapped submarine deal, saying his nation will not accept “sledging” and “slurs”.
On Sunday French President Emmanuel Macron said he knew Mr Morrison had lied to him about his intentions to renege on the deal.
Mr Morrison denies he lied.
The row deepened on Tuesday when a text message sent to him by President Macron was leaked to Australian media.
The animosity dates back to September when Australia cancelled the $37bn (£27bn) deal with France to build 12 diesel-powered submarines, and instead negotiated a defence pact with the US and the UK – the so-called Aukus.
The agreement will see Australia gain access to US nuclear submarine technology – a move seen as a strategic counter to China. But it infuriated France, which said it was blindsided. Paris temporarily recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the US.
“I’ve got broad shoulders, I can deal with that [the accusations],” Mr Morrison told reporters at the COP26 climate summit, in response to the French president’s assertion that he had lied.
“But those slurs – I’m not going to cop sledging off Australia. I’m not going to cop that on behalf of Australians.”
The Australian leader’s remarks led to accusations that he had twisted Mr Macron’s words as a rebuke to Australians rather than to him personally.
Mr Macron and Mr Morrison met at the G20 summit in Rome on the weekend – their first meeting since the row.
But asked later whether he thought Mr Morrison had been untruthful, Mr Macron said: “I don’t think, I know.”
He told Australian journalists in Rome: “I have a lot of respect for your country. I just say when we have respect, you have to be true and you have to behave in line and consistently with this value.”
Speaking in Glasgow, Mr Morrison maintained he did not wish to “personalise” the row, acknowledging France had taken offence.
But he said he had explained concerns about the contract to Mr Macron in June.
Australian media then reported that Mr Morrison’s office had leaked a text message from the French president sent two days before the Aukus deal was announced in which he purportedly wrote: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarine ambitions?”
The implication was that President Macron was already aware of a potential threat to France’s submarine contract.
The French leader’s entourage accused the Australians of adopting “very ungainly methods”. The Élysée Palace pointed out that the SMS merely showed that Mr Macron “did not know at one point where discussions were”, according to Le Parisien website.
Australian commentators have accused Mr Morrison and his advisers of trying to blunt the row’s impact domestically.
“Imagine the jetlagged brainstorming on the midnight flight to Glasgow. Let’s accuse Macron of sledging. Aussies will get that. And let’s say he was having a go at Australia, not me. Australia,” wrote Barrie Cassidy.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden also held his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Macron since the Aukus pact was agreed.
During the seemingly awkward exchange, Mr Biden admitted that the US was “clumsy” over the negotiations.