Australia-France Spat Takes Ugly Turn With Leaked Text Messages, Warning to World Leaders

France is accusing Australia of leaking text messages belonging to French President Emmanuel Macron to the media in what is being called a "new low" by authorities, the Associated Press reported.

A text message conversation between Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was recently leaked to Australian media. One message sent by Macron asks: "Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?"

The feud between the two countries is continuing, with Jean-Pierre Thebault, French ambassador to Australia, slamming the capital of Canberra for its decision to end a 90-billion Australian dollar contract with France. The contract was to build a large fleet of 12 submarines that ran on diesel and electric power. The deal was canceled because Australia allied itself with the U.S. and Britain to acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines.

"This is an unprecedented new low, in terms of how to proceed and also in terms of truth and trust," Thebault said during the address at Australia's National Press Club.

He also added that the leak could also affect international governments.

"Beware," Thebault added, "in Australia there will be leaks and what you say in confidence to your partners will be eventually used and weaponized against you."

While visiting the United Arab Emirates, Morrison responded to the allegations, saying, "I don't think there's any profit for anyone in continuing down this path."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Emmanuel Macron COP26
French President Emmanuel Macron attends the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 at SECC on November 1, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. A text message conversation between Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was recently leaked. Photo by Yves Herman - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The extraordinarily bitter bilateral spat is heightened by both national leaders seeking reelection early next year. Doubts are growing about how the relationship can be effectively reset if both Marcon and Morrison remain in charge.

France is undermining international confidence in Australia as its government tries to finalize a free trade deal with the European Union.

Morrison used it as proof that Macron knew the deal was in doubt after Macron accused the Australian leader of lying during a Paris dinner in June. Macron said Morrison gave him no indication the deal would not go ahead.

France has condemned the leak as a further breach of trust.

Rather than proof that Morrison hadn't lied to Marcon, the message suggested Australia had left France in the dark.

"It completely demonstrates that until the last minute, we didn't know where things were heading to," Thebault said. "It completely demonstrates that nothing has ever been told to us."

Morrison maintains that he did not lie to the French leader and had been clear that conventional submarines would not meet Australia's evolving strategic needs.

Thebault rejected Morrison's account.

"The deceit was intentional," Thebault said. "The way it was handled was plainly a stab in the back."

The French ambassador agreed with Macron's assessment that he had been lied to by Morrison on multiple occasions.

"Maybe there is a difference between misleading and lying," Thebault said.

"But, you know, among heads of states and governments, when you mislead a friend and an ally, you lie to him," Thebault added.

Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister who signed the French submarine contract and considers Macron a personal friend, joined the attack on his successor's credibility.

"Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies," Turnbull told reporters. "He's lied to me on many occasions."

"Claims were made and claims were refuted," Morrison said. "Australia made the decision not to go ahead with a contract for a submarine that was not going to do the job that Australia needed it to do, and I'll never make any apologies for that decision."

Damien Kingsbury, a Deakin University expert on international politics, described the French envoy's strident criticisms, extraordinary for an ambassador of a host nation, as "hugely embarrassing" for the government.

But Kingsbury ruled out Australia reacting by sending Thebault home.

"Anything the Australian government does now in response would be seen to be at a minimum engaging in tit for tat and that would just prolong the dispute and that's the last thing the Australian government wants," Kingsbury said.

Thebault and French Ambassador to the United States Philippe Etienne were recalled to Paris after Australia's new nuclear propulsion alliance was announced.

Etienne returned to Washington in September, but Thebault did not come back to Canberra until last month.

Thebault said France had "found again the path to acting together" with the United States.

The broken submarine contract had led to postponements in the European Union's negotiations with Australia on a free trade agreement that had been scheduled to resume last month.

France had "no reason to interfere" with the European Commission's negotiations on behalf of the 27 member countries, Thebault said.

One of the considerations in reaching such a trade deal was "the quality of the signature of your partner," he said.

Jean-Pierre Thebault
French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault delivers an address to the National Press Club in Canberra on November 3, 2021. He called the leaking of text messages involving French President Emmanuel Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison "a new low." Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP