Joyce defends secrecy over submarine deal

Recalled ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault is expressing France's anger with Australia.
Recalled ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault is expressing France's anger with Australia.

Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has defended secrecy surrounding Australia's decision to tear up a French $90 billion submarine contract.

The Morrison government last week announced it would switch to nuclear-powered boats as part of a new security pact with the United States and United Kingdom.

But the decision to scrap a deal with French company Naval Group angered the European nation's government.

France's ambassador to Australia, who has been sensationally recalled, said his country's government found out about the new submarine deal at the last minute.

However, Mr Joyce said secrecy was needed surrounding the negotiations for the nuclear-propulsion technology.

"People say we should have been more open," he told reporters on Monday.

"The reason we have a national security committee is because it's secret, otherwise it would be called the parliament.

"We have to make deliberations in absolute secrecy on behalf of our nation."

France's ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault said his country's government had been kept in the dark.

He said French President Emmanuel Macron was notified between one and five hours before Australia announced the AUKUS pact with the US and UK.

"When you're trusted partners you don't behave like that," Mr Thebault told ABC Radio.

"It's a question of principle, it's a question of dignity and mutual respect in relations between states."

Mr Joyce said France's reaction of immense disappointment would have been the same if Paris was notified earlier.

"We must focus on what is our number one task, and that is - even if there's a sense of people being disappointed - our job is to protect you," he said.

"I understand how there's a sense of umbrage to the French, I understand how they would be disappointed."

Despite the deep rift, Mr Thebault said France was not lobbying the European Union to pull out of free-trade negotiations with Australia.

"At this stage negotiations do continue and it is a strong interest I recognise for Australia to have free-trade agreement with the EU," he said.

Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said blindsiding France was not in the national interest.

"It is not in our national interest to make our friends so angry and so disappointed," she told the ABC.

"I mean, I can understand if the French would be asking, 'with friends like this, who needs enemies?'."

Trade Minister Dan Tehan will travel to Europe in the next fortnight for meetings with his French counterpart.

Mr Tehan said a 12th round of talks on the Australia-EU free-trade deal would go ahead next month.

"I see no reasons why those discussions won't continue," he said.

He hopes to finalise the deal within 12 to 18 months.

Meanwhile, North Korea's foreign ministry warned it would retaliate against Australia if Pyongyang sees its security threatened by the new AUKUS pact.

Australian Associated Press