France has ‘huge hopes’ of rebuilding relationship with Australia after Coalition’s ‘deceitful’ behaviour

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

France’s ambassador to Australia has declared the former Morrison government was widely seen as “refusing to take responsibility” to act on the climate crisis, suggesting the Albanese government’s new policy will help repair trust.

Jean-Pierre Thébault also told Guardian Australia there had never been a problem between the people of France and Australia, but the breakdown was linked to the “deceitful attitude” taken by “a certain administration”.

Eight months on from the Aukus-fuelled rift, Thébault said he now had “huge hopes” for rebuilding the relationship between the two countries.

The Albanese government’s stronger 2030 emissions target has also been welcomed by senior European diplomats, who believe it could help smooth the way towards a long-awaited free trade agreement between the European Union and Australia.

Related: France’s outgoing foreign minister welcomes defeat of Scott Morrison

The EU ambassador to Australia, Michael Pulch, said it might now be possible to agree on “a more ambitious sustainable trade chapter” – and that “certainly will help” the process of ratifying the deal through the European parliament.

Both ambassadors spoke to Guardian Australia after they attended an Indo-Pacific forum at the Australian National University in Canberra on Wednesday – an event designed to showcase the EU’s interest in closer cooperation in the region.

Thébault said the new Australian government’s position on climate change – including a 43% cut in emissions by 2030 against 2005 levels – was “truly a gamechanger”, and took aim at the previous government’s refusal to increase the target.

“It is something on which Australia was widely seen, not only by EU but also by Pacific countries, as not fulfilling its potential and refusing to take responsibility,” said the French ambassador, who was recalled to Paris at the height of the tensions last year.

“Today, we have a complete change of footing, which has been widely applauded.”

Thébault said France welcomed the new stance, which opened avenues for pragmatic cooperation “not only bilaterally, also internationally, and especially in this region, that we both have a strong interest for”.

He said he hoped for “a substantial, very positive, constructive reconnection [and] relaunch”.

“I’ve received a lot of messages from Australians – the quiet Australians – who have been loudly saying we hope, especially on climate change, on these common threats, that we can act together,” Thébault said, using a phrase coined by Scott Morrison.

“We will work on this, but also many other aspects – but this remains to be discussed among the leaders and among the responsible persons to make it possible and to make it stronger than ever.”

France’s outgoing foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, made some undiplomatic remarks on Sunday, saying Morrison’s defeat in the election “suits me very well” after the cancellation of the French submarine deal showed “brutality and cynicism”.

Thébault said Le Drian had been speaking “on the basis of his experience”, noting that the long-serving foreign minister had also been the defence minister before that.

“He also was personally very involved in the building of this confident relationship [with Australia], which does probably explain the bluntness of his assessment, but he wasn’t the only one to express dissatisfaction with the way things were being handled,” Thébault said.

“It was a deceitful attitude then but, you know, it was not only the French who felt that. It has been the Europeans and it has been very large sectors of the Australian public opinion.”

Morrison and his ministers have always maintained that France would have been upset by the cancellation of the deal, regardless of when it was told, and the pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines was justified by the worsening strategic outlook in the Indo-Pacific.

Labor is committed to the Aukus deal with the US and the UK and agrees with the strategic case for nuclear-propelled submarines, so there is no prospect of a return to the French project.

The incoming government will likely have to sign off on the financial settlement with France’s Naval Group in coming months, given the negotiations were not concluded by the time of the election.

Related: Australia to stand with Pacific islands on climate crisis and ‘respect’ region, Penny Wong says

Progress on an EU-Australia free trade agreement slowed down after the diplomatic rift with France, although a postponed round of negotiations went ahead in February.

Pulch, who heads the EU delegation in Canberra, said the next round of negotiations was likely to be held by October and the new climate policy was “a very good signal”.

“In the European parliament, there is generally a view that every agreement that we sign – whether it’s political, economic or trade – should be a net-plus when it comes to implementation of the Paris Agreement,” Pulch said in an interview.

The EU released its strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in September but it was overshadowed by the Aukus fallout.

Pulch said the EU was committed to the strategy, which was “more important than ever” after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Amid intensifying competition with China for influence, Pulch said Australia and the EU could help Pacific island countries with infrastructure and “offer an alternative to Chinese investment”.

“Australia matters to us,” he said.

Earlier, the EU’s special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, Gabriele Visentin, described Australia as a “regional power” and crucial to the strategy.

Visentin said this engagement “goes beyond governments, beyond political parties”.

“Our strategy is - allow me to say - a love letter to the region,” Visentin said in conversation with the head of the ANU’s national security college, Prof Rory Medcalf.

“It says that we want to do more.”

Visentin said the strategy was focused on cooperation not confrontation “so we don’t ask our partners to take sides”.

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