Scott Morrison had a very awkward handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron at the G20 summit after a months-long war of words.
The Australian prime minister met Mr Macron for the first time since Australia pulled out of a $90 billion deal to have France manufacture its next generation of submarines.
The leaders met briefly on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome, just two days after a first phone call since Australia opted for nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with the US and Britain in the AUKUS pact.
Mr Morrison told reporters he only briefly bumped into the French leader and ‘said g’day’ and that he hoped they could speak more later.
An awkward handshake in Rome between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre right) and French President Emmanuel Macron (centre left)
Their icy phone conversation followed revelations that Mr Macron for weeks refused to take a call from Mr Morrison.
In what was reportedly a tense phone call before Mr Morrison left for Europe, Mr Macron told the prime minister he ‘broken the relationship of trust between our two countries’.
‘It is now up to the Australian government to propose tangible actions that embody the political will of Australia’s highest authorities to redefine the basis of our bilateral relationship and continue joint action in the Indo-Pacific,’ a statement from President Macron’s office said.
Before he flew to Rome, Mr Morrison played down the prospect of a meeting with Mr Macron.
‘I don’t think that’s probably going to happen this time,’ he said.
‘I think it will happen eventually, but we just got to give him a bit of space, give him a bit of space.
‘I mean, we had to take the decision we took in the national interest, and maybe we’ll catch up at some time down the track. But for now, you know, sometimes it’s just best to give our friends a bit of space.’
An Australian Collins class submarine (front) and the UK nuclear-powered attack submarine, HMS Astute (rear) are seen at HMAS Stirling Royal Australian Navy base in Perth on October 29, 2021. Australia is committed to getting its first nuclear-powered submarines built and operating as quickly as possible, says Defence Minister Peter Dutton, after pulling out of a $90billion deal to have France make its next generation of submarines
The plan to avoid Mr Macron in Rome came undone when the leaders unexpectedly found themselves just metres apart.
‘I said g’day, I said g’day,’ Mr Morrison told reporters in Rome.
‘He was having a chat to someone, I went up and just put my arm on his shoulder and just said “g’day, Emmanuel,” and “look forward to catching up over the next couple of days”.
‘That’s the way these events tend to work and he was happy to exchange those greetings.’
Before bumping into Mr Morrison, Mr Macron had met Joe Biden. The US President expressed great concern about the handling of the secret plan to dump France from the submarine project, saying it was ‘clumsy’ and ‘not done with a lot of grace’.
‘I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through,’ Mr Biden told President Macron.
‘I honest to God did not know you had not been.’
Mr Morrison would no be drawn on whether Mr Biden had dropped him in deeper trouble with the French.
‘He’s had a candid conversation with the French President and I’ll leave his remarks for him,’ he said.
Mr Morrison and the Australian Government have been the subject of French fury at being kept in the dark over the decision to end the $90 billion submarine contract.
The French government was told Australia was scrapping the deal just hours before Mr Morrison, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr Biden hosted a tri-lateral press conference to talk about the new AUKUS security and defence pact.
France’s ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, was recalled in September after the submarine deal was cancelled, though he has since returned to Canberra.
The French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his country’s parliament he asked the ambassador to go back to Australia with two missions: ‘To define our relationship with Australia in the future… and firmly defend our interests in the implementation of Australia’s decision to terminate the submarine program.’
Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives at the G20 summit of world leaders to discuss climate change, Covid-19 and the post-pandemic global recovery at the La Nuvola center G20 Summit, Rome, Italy
There are fears that Australia’s ditching of the French submarine deal could derail a potential free trade agreement with the European Union, of which France is a key member.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said of the deal cancellation: ‘There are a lot of open questions that have to be answered… One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable.’
France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune said France could halt progress on an EU-Australia trade deal which has been under negotiation since mid-2018.
‘Keeping one’s word is the condition of trust between democracies and between allies,’ he told Politico.
‘So it is unthinkable to move forward on trade negotiations as if nothing had happened with a country in which we no longer trust.’
During the 2019-20 financial year, Australia’s two-way trade with the EU was worth $78.7 billion, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade data showed.