THE MOMENT that Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, on September 16th described the deal as a “stab in the back”, the anger in Paris was plain. The next day, the French recalled their ambassador to Washington, DC (and that to Australia), for the first time since the 1790s. The announcement by America, Australia and Britain of a new security pact (AUKUS), which torpedoed Australia’s €90bn ($105bn) submarine contract with France in favour of a promise to buy nuclear-powered American submarines instead, has left the French dumbfounded, humiliated and irate.

The reaction in France is only partly about the tearing up of a big defence contract, although such decisions are always tough to accept. France has a big enough defence industry to be able to absorb the loss; compensation for breach of contract will be sought. What has enraged the French, rather, is what one source calls the “extreme duplicity and betrayal of good faith” on the part of countries it considers to be close allies.

The French submarine contract was signed in 2016, under the previous Socialist presidency of François Hollande, in the context of a strategic-partnership agreement with Australia. This formed part of French efforts to build up a geo-political presence in the Indo-Pacific and act as a global player in the region in the face of an assertive China. It keeps over 7,000 soldiers there, and regularly patrols through the South China Sea. Nearly 2m French citizens live in the Indo-Pacific, including on French territories such as French Polynesia and New Caledonia.

On numerous recent occasions, at meetings with representatives of both the Australian and American governments, the French were led to believe that this partnership—and the submarine deal—was intact. As recently as August 30th, at a joint meeting of French and Australian foreign and defence ministers, the two countries made an explicit reference to “the importance of the future submarine programme” and “committed to deepen defence industry cooperation”. Yet two weeks later the Australians tore up the deal. President Emmanuel Macron was kept in the dark until the very last moment. AUKUS is intended to bolster Australia’s naval capability, notably in the South China Sea, and to allow America and its allies to better meet the rising military power of China in the region.“Allies don’t do this to each other,” said Mr Le Drian curtly. “The Americans completely overlooked the fact that this wasn’t just a commercial contract,” says Benjamin Haddad, at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC: “It was the underpinning of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy.”

French anger is directed primarily at Australia and America, rather than at Britain. Hence the recall of only the two ambassadors and not the third. But the decision to bring home the envoys, which Mr Le Drian made at Mr Macron’s personal request, was not taken lightly, and is intended to demonstrate how seriously France is taking this breach of trust. Highly unusual, it is not however the first time in recent years that France has recalled its ambassador to a friendly country. In 2019 Mr Macron brought back his representative to Italy after what he judged interference in domestic French politics during the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) crisis.

It is hard to overstate the current sense of bitterness and grievance in Paris. In the short run, this should not directly affect, for example, operational military cooperation between France and America in the Sahel. France keeps over 5,000 troops in this region of north-west Africa as part of an anti-terrorism operation, for which America provides critical intelligence and logistics support.

But the breach of confidence with America and Australia in particular will take time to overcome. It is bound to make France a distrustful player over other matters, and to make it less likely to compromise when it comes, for example, to enforcing Britain’s Brexit divorce agreement with the European Union. It will also force the French, if not to rethink their ability to pursue their own Indo-Pacific strategy, then at least to confront the limits of it when measured against an Anglophone alliance.

The most probable geo-political conclusion that France will draw from all this is that they were right to judge America an unreliable ally, and to seek greater self-reliance instead. In Paris, Joe Biden’s preference for dealing with English-speaking allies makes the pursuit of what the French call “European sovereignty” even more pressing than ever. “America’s behaviour has been unpleasant, but it reinforces an analysis we have already made”, says an official French source, “which is that, for America, allies count for little. So we have to be able to act by ourselves.”

Whether Mr Macron is able to bring fellow Europeans along with him on this matter, however, is less obvious. As it is, Europeans do not agree among themselves what they really mean when they talk about “strategic autonomy”, and tend to be much better at drafting documents about such concepts than building the real capacity needed to operate them. As if to make the point, AUKUS was announced on the very day that the European Commission presented its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

Some in Europe also suspect that, despite Mr Macron’s assertions to the contrary, his real intention has always been to undermine NATO. Others may be afraid of annoying America by making public any sympathy that they might have with France’s position. The submarine deal may have concerned only France, not the EU; but the lack of expressions of solidarity from European friends has been striking. Whatever the challenges of building greater European autonomy, though, after this week’s events a wounded Mr Macron will doubtless conclude that France, and Europe, are left with no other choice but to try. Others, however, may be slow to follow him in any substantial way.