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French envoy to return to Australia amid AUKUS row

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Australia says the French move will help repair relations amid a spat over a cancelled submarine deal.

Australian government ministers have welcomed France’s decision to return its ambassador to Canberra, saying they hope the two nations could repair the damage caused by a cancelled submarine contract.

“We welcome back the French Ambassador to Canberra, and hopefully we can move beyond our recent disappointments,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told Nine Network TV on Thursday.

“France and Australia, share a number of common interests, particularly in our work together in the regions,” he said. “So let’s hope we can get that relationship back on track.”

Paris recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra last month after Australia cancelled a 90-billion Australian dollar ($66bn) contract it had with France to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.

Under an alliance that includes the United Kingdom, Australia instead will acquire a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines built with United States technology.

France quickly returned its ambassador to the US, a NATO partner. But it had frozen its contacts with Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Morrison said on Tuesday that French President Emmanuel Macron would not take his calls.

Trade Minister Dan Tehan has been snubbed by French officials while in Paris this week.

Negotiations on a free trade deal between Australia and the European Union that were to take place this month have also been postponed to November.

Bernd Lange, a German legislator and chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, said questions have been raised about whether Australia can be trusted.

In a sign of a thaw, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that Paris will return its envoy to Canberra.

But he did not set a date.

“I have now asked our ambassador to return to Canberra with two missions,” Le Drian said. “To help redefine the terms of our relationship with Australia in the future, and to defend our interests in the concrete implementation of the Australian decision to end the programme for future submarines.”

Le Drian said Paris had completely reviewed its bilateral relationship with Australia given that the submarine deal had been part of that broader strategy.

“Starting afresh in our bilateral relations will not have any impact on our determination to remain engaged in the Pacific,” he said.

It is not yet clear how much the termination of the contract signed in 2016 will cost Australia.

Australia had already spent 2.4 billion Australian dollars ($1.8bn) on the project.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she sees the ambassador’s return as a positive sign.

“We will work with France to move forward with our relationship. We recognise this will take time and ongoing engagement following our submarine decision,” she said in a statement.

“The return of the Ambassador is a welcome step in this process.”

Australian Agriculture Minister David Littleproud also said he was “pleased” with the French decision.

“We’re understanding the disappointment they have, but at some juncture, we’re going to have to move forward, and we believe that an EU free trade agreement would be a good juncture, “ Littleproud told reporters.

“After the disappointment, they understand we need to move on and continue to work together,” he added.


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