Two senior Australian ministers will fly to France next week to step up efforts to repair the diplomatic rift, with closer cooperation in the Pacific expected to be on the agenda.
The defence minister, Richard Marles, and the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, will meet their French counterparts for what is known as a “2+2” meeting – the first in this format since the 2021 diplomatic rupture sparked by Aukus, sources said.
Similar talks in late August 2021 became central to France’s accusations it was “betrayed” by the then Morrison government.
That was because the joint statement agreed by the then ministers, Peter Dutton and Marise Payne, and their French counterparts, Florence Parly and Jean-Yves Le Drian, included a promise “to deepen defence industry cooperation” and “underlined the importance of the future submarine program”.
Just two weeks later, the Morrison government killed off that $90bn French program in favour of seeking US and UK help to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
It led the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to make the infamous accusation “I don’t think; I know” Scott Morrison lied in the lead-up to the Aukus deal, a claim that Morrison denied.
After visiting France next week, Wong and Marles will travel to the United Kingdom to participate in annual talks with their British counterparts, James Cleverly and Ben Wallace.
The war in Ukraine is expected to be discussed in the Australian ministers’ meetings with both the French and British. Last week Australia farewelled up to 70 defence force personnel bound for the UK to join a multinational training mission for Ukrainian troops, but the ADF will not enter Ukraine itself.
The UK talks are also being held in the lead-up to the March deadline for key decisions on how the nuclear-powered submarines will be delivered and Australia’s broader defence strategy.
Since coming to office in May, the Albanese government has recommitted to the Aukus submarine project but has placed a significant emphasis on rebuilding trust with France, which it sees as a key partner in the Pacific.
The government quickly signed off on a settlement with France’s Naval Group over the scrapping of the contract, a negotiation that began under the former government, and the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, visited Macron in Paris six months ago.
Albanese said after a further meeting with Macron on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali in November that they had discussed interim solutions to boost Australia’s defence capability. Albanese denied any rift when, days later, Macron said the Aukus plans risked “nuclear confrontation” with China.
Both the Australian and French sides have cited climate action as an area in which the two sides can work together, after the new Labor government increased the 2030 emissions reduction target.
They have been developing a “roadmap” for greater cooperation, not just in the area of climate change and energy but also in defence and security, along with cultural and education exchanges.
These topics are likely to be the high-level themes of the meeting between Wong and Marles and French ministers Catherine Colonna and Sébastien Lecornu.
The looming visit to France has not been derailed by the Australian government’s announcement last week that it was scrapping the European-backed Taipan MRH90 helicopters early, probably because it can be seen as rubber-stamping a Morrison government-era decision.
The Labor government confirmed that it would buy Black Hawks from the US at a likely cost of about $3bn, as first flagged by Peter Dutton in late 2021. As a result, Defence intends to cease Taipan flying operations by December 2024 – 13 years earlier than original expectations.
Airbus, a part-French government-owned company that continues to provide maintenance support for the Taipan helicopters, said it noted the decision and would work with the Australian government to help affected workers stay in the industry.
In a round of short broadcast interviews after the Taipan announcement last week, Marles said it was “definitely not a surprise” to France “and we’ve been completely clear with them”.