Boris Johnson has said the UK’s relationship with France is “indestructible” despite the fallout from the new military pact with the US and Australia.
The prime minister said the “AUKUS” initiative is “not exclusionary” after France’s defence minister cancelled talks with her UK counterpart over Australia pulling out of a major contract with France for submarines in favour of the pact to build nuclear-powered vessels with the UK and US.
Brokered last week, the agreement ended a £27bn deal with France signed by Australia in 2016 to build 12 diesel-powered submarines.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described it as a “stab in the back” that constitutes “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners”.
But Mr Johnson told reporters in New York: “The UK and France have a very, very important and indestructible relationship and of course we’ll talk to all our friends about how to make the AUKUS pact work, that it’s not exclusionary, it’s not divisive and it really doesn’t have to be that way.
“This is just the way of the US, the UK and Australia of sharing certain technologies because that is the sensible thing to do in the world in which we find ourselves.
“That does not in any way mean that we wish to be adversarial towards anyone else or exclusive or crowding anyone else out.”
He added that the UK’s relationship with France is “incredibly important, it’s historic” and pointed out the two countries work together “shoulder to shoulder” fighting terrorism in the Sahel region in Africa and as part of the NATO mission in the Baltic states deterring Russian aggression.
“There is one other country in the world with whom we share a programme to do simulated nuclear testing – which country is that? It’s France,” he said.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also attempted to play down suggestions of a rift after his French counterpart Florence Parly postponed a bilateral meeting with him.
Mr Wallace told the House of Commons Australia had exercised its “right to choose” but said the US and France are “our closest allies” and said he has an “extremely close relationship” with Ms Parly and “we speak regularly”.
French President Emmanuel Macron is notably absent from the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, but is due to speak to US President Joe Biden over the phone in the coming days, an official said.
France recalled its ambassadors from the US and Australia in a sign of the seriousness of the crisis, with the French foreign minister meeting with the two ambassadors on Sunday to discuss “the strategic consequences of the current crisis”, the ministry said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said France “would have had every reason to know that we have deep and grave concerns” about the capability of France’s Attack class subs, which he said cannot meet Australia’s strategic interests.
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