Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he wouldn’t “cop sledging” from France as he defended his position over a broken submarine deal that launched a diplomatic crisis.
The comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron accused Morrison of lying to him about scrapping a multi-billion-euro French contract for a pact with the United States and the United Kingdom that would provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
The defence pact, unveiled in September, resulted in France withdrawing its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra.
In response to a question from a journalist in Rome about whether Macron thought Morrison had lied, the French president replied “I don’t think, I know.”
Macron had emphasised just beforehand that he had “a lot of respect” and “friendship” for the people of Australia.
Morrison responded by saying he wouldn’t take “slurs” or “sledging”.
“I must say that I think the statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs that were placed on Australia, not me, I’ve got broad shoulders I can deal with that, but those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging of Australia,” Morrison said.
Morrison also defended the deal as protecting Australia and meeting the country’s “strategic needs” in a “complex” region.
“I make no apology for it. I need to ensure that Aus has the best submarine capability in one of the most complex parts of the world in the Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said, adding that there had been delays in the contract with France’s Naval Group and, that despite reaction from the French government, Australia had decided to pursue an “alternative.”
US President Joe Biden aimed to ease tensions with France over the submarine deal in a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 over the weekend.
The US president said that “what we did was clumsy”, stating that the deal was “not done with a lot of grace.”
“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before,” Biden added.
An Australian newspaper recently reported that Morrison had tried to inform Macron about the defence pact ahead of its announcement but that the French president was not available.
Australia’s opposition Labour leader Anthony Albanese suggested Morrison may have leaked the private text message from Macron, and criticised a breakdown in relations between Australia and democratic allies.