Press Conference, Canberra

  • Transcript (E&OE)
Subjects: Australia-France relationship; France-Australia Bilateral Roadmap; Hamas-Israel Conflict.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: I'm so pleased to welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs of France, Catherine Colonna to Canberra, to Australia, for her first visit. I appreciate, we appreciate her effort, and the effort of her delegation in coming to Australia.

Look, France is a power in the Pacific, it's a power in Europe, and it's a multilateral power, and this is a very important partnership to Australia. We have an enduring, contemporary and forward‑looking partnership, and we are united in addressing shared challenges, globally, but also in Europe, the Middle East and the Indo‑Pacific.

Catherine observed today at the National Press Club that France is a bridge‑builder, and in this and in so many other things, we are like‑minded. We're both countries committed to building a stronger bilateral relationship that's based on our shared interests and our shared values of liberty, democracy, rule of law, and the protection of human rights.

Before we go to questions, I'll just make a couple of brief remarks. Firstly, we obviously discussed today the Middle East, and I again indicate Australia's position, we unequivocally condemn the October 7 attacks. We call, continue to call for the immediate release of all hostages.

Like France, we recognise Israel's right to defend itself and we stress that the way it does so matters. Israel must respect international humanitarian law and it must conduct its military operations lawfully. And we are very concerned about the scale of civilian death that we are all seeing, including children.

I'm sure there may be questions on that. So I'll turn to the Bilateral Roadmap. When I was in Paris, we had discussions about ‑ actually, I think the first discussion was at the UN General Assembly ‑ yes ‑ about the Bilateral Roadmap and arising out of President Macron's and Prime Minister Albanese's meeting where they agreed to take this forward.

We are launching the Roadmap today. It outlines new levels of cooperation to achieve outcomes under the pillars of defence and security, resilience and climate action, education and culture, and responding to the needs of our partners in the Pacific.

It will obviously operate as a roadmap within which, or beneath which there will be specific steps taken, one of which we took today, which was the signing of a bilateral agreement on Pacific development cooperation between our agencies, our portfolios to more effectively meet the needs of our Pacific partners.

This is a very important part of the ‑ I think Catherine described it as a reset of the relationship. We've been really pleased to work with the Minister and her portfolio on making sure we can develop this roadmap. I thank her for coming to Australia, and I'll hand the podium to her.

Catherine Colonna, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs: Thank you, Senator. Happy to be here. It's my first time to Australia, so quite an event for me, and thank you for being here, and your part, and thank you for your interest in Franco‑Australian relations.

It's an additional pleasure to be here at the invitation of a very good colleague and friend, Senator Wong. Last time, yes, we met in New York in the margins of the General Assembly, and I already had the pleasure to welcome you to Paris along with Richard Marles, so I had to come to Australia, and this Paris meeting, you know the classic two plus two foreign affairs-defence meeting was a milestone between the visit of Prime Minister Albanese to Paris, President Macron on July 1, 2022, and my visit today.

Yesterday I shared some thoughts, earlier today, at the National Press Club, quite an honour for me, speaking after you, but not trying to meet the depth of your remarks, Penny. But it was an opportunity for me to make a few remarks on our strategy for the Indo‑Pacific and on what we can do together in the relationship.

So let me be very direct and short. The Indo‑Pacific is a top priority for France. We are a nation of the Pacific. We are determined to step up, beef up our cooperation with partners in the region, including, of course, with the number one partner for us in the region, i.e. Australia. And we need to do so in order to cope with global challenges, and also to preserve the rules-based order that we cherish and can see sometimes shaken. So Australia's been a long, long, is, will be a very strong partner for France in the region.

But we all serve an ambition in the Indian Ocean, including with India and Australia, in this trilateral summit, and we also talked about that today, and as far as Australia is concerned, we stand with our allies and partners, especially when they face unfriendly behaviours. For example, where they try to exercise, or do exercise their right to navigate freely. So allow me to wish, Senator, a prompt recovery to the Australian Navy officer that was injured in recent incident, an incident that should not have happened.

So today is, I believe, an important moment between our two countries. We are adopting this ambitious roadmap for profoundly renewed relationship and partnership between our two countries on the eve of the 80th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, which will come next year.

So in order to get there, we've been working hard. It took us 18 months. Senator Wong and I and our teams did the job requested by President Macron and Prime Minister Albanese in July 2022, when your Prime Minister visited Paris, a few weeks, by the way, after taking office, and our task was to rebuild, reset, use whatever word is appropriate ‑ I don't know which one you prefer?

Foreign Minister Wong: "Renew" is good, I like that.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: Let's renew then, the kind of relationship we had before September 2021. But further than that, to really build a new one and to build a new one around concrete projects and this is what a roadmap is about.

Let me give just a few examples, I won't be too long, but to flag a few items and what we're doing, which is quite extensive and covering a lot of issues.

We launched an Australia‑France Centre of Excellence for the Indo‑Pacific with three programs, and I want to name those programs; an Indo‑Pacific Studies Program focused on strategic research, capacity shared knowledge initiative dedicated to fostering research in such areas like climate change, environment and marine sciences, and a Centre for Energy Transition, well, Green Transition, that will bring together both the academic world and companies to support research, training and help build correlations to deliver the best energy transition solutions for our countries and the region.

And let me add that we do not have anything like this anywhere else in the world. So happy that we could be achieving it first in this respect.

We are also launching a Partnership for Climate and Environmental Resilience in the Pacific through the signing, and thank you ladies, a few minutes ago of a letter of intent between the Agence Francaise de Developpement, the AFD, and the DFAT.

On defence, because yes, I have to speak about defence, it's part of our history ‑ no, for the good part ‑ we do have already a very good operational cooperation between our armed forces and we will enhance this cooperation, this interoperability through a reciprocal access to military facilities, this is quite important, and through increased joint activities. And as we speak our two Ministers for Defence are discussing this very moment in New Caledonia during the Sixth Edition of the South Pacific Defence Ministers' meeting that we are proud to host in Noumea.

In addition to Defence and to the other points I mentioned, the roadmap encompasses a list of very practical cooperations on critical minerals, space and the Antarctica, we see competition increasing, and last but not least, we have decided to be much more ambitious in the field of culture and heritage.

Just a couple of examples of that, I came to Canberra with a digitalised version of the archives of an early French scientific exploration, talking about the years 1792, 1793, we were bold and adventurous then. It is bringing a unique testimony before the rest of us came to this land. If I recall, 27,000 pages of scientific evidence including, you know, the geography, nature, the animals, the plants there and the people of that land.

So I'm proud that Australia and France have submitted to the UNESCO very recently, just few weeks ago in November, to register these archives in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

So it's only the beginning of the journey we want to undertake with you, with citizens of French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia in the huge scope of shared memories. And the second example, what we do in culture and heritage is tomorrow the launch of the France‑Australia Cultural Exchange Foundation, one of the ideas we had in July 2022 led by an Australian to support in particular a program of artistic residences for exchanging projects from Australian and French artists and institutions, and the additional beauty in this program is that the program will be open to other Pacific nations as well.

So as you can see, we believe in the potential of the relationship between our two countries. It is huge in all sectors. We would like to cover it the years to come, and keeping this in mind, I will, I have to, but I will consider opening a French Consulate-General in Melbourne, if you accept it.

Foreign Minister Wong: Of course.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: So let's keeping up the good and positive relationship we have, bringing forward. Thank you.

Foreign Minister Wong: Before I take questions, can I just add a personal note of thanks. There's a lot of work required to, not just get the roadmap together, but to renew the relationship. I think we all understand the history here, and I do want to just acknowledge Catherine's personal engagement on this. We have appreciated it, and you have been a real friend of Australia's, and we are very appreciative of your role in ensuring we are here today and we're making this announcement. So thank you very much.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: Thank you. The same is true for you, Penny.

Foreign Minister Wong: Mr Packham.

Journalist: Ministers, thank you. Just on the reciprocal access to each other's Defence facilities. How will this operate in practice? Is this just a statement of intent, or will it be underpinned by some sort of RA, reciprocal access agreement, or treaty of some form? How do you envisage it working?

Foreign Minister Wong: I think you will see work on this between Defence portfolios in the coming period, so I won't ‑‑

French Foreign Minister Colonna: I don't think we need a treaty for that. We need some sort of ‑ obviously governmental agreement, we're working on it. It's a huge achievement, we're still working on something comparative with our nations of the Asia‑Pacific.

Foreign Minister Wong: We keen particularly in the Pacific to work more closely together, and hence the Deputy Prime Minister's attendance at the conference that Catherine spoke about in New Caledonia.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: We do already lots of joint exercises, and there's this tradition of working together. But having access to facilities will help that, sure.

Journalist: Minister, can I ask about the stalled agreement for ‑ the stalled negotiations in the European Trade Agreement. I appreciate this is, in the end, a matter for the European Commission rather than for France, but nonetheless, as a major player in the European Union, I'd be interested to know whether it was discussed between you, that Minister Wong, whether you pressed Minister Colonna on the question of agricultural market access for Australia, and Minister Colonna, is it your assessment that an agreement could still be finalised perhaps next year, and what would Australia need to give in order to make it a reality?

Foreign Minister Wong: You know, I know you want to ask questions which invite us to negotiate in public, but I'm going to disappoint you. We won't be doing that, and obviously our Trade Ministers ‑ well, the Australian Trade Minister and the EU will, you know, reprise this negotiation next year if possible. We've made our position clear, but that's not precluding the bilateral cooperation that we've been discussing today.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: You must know, Penny, because you don't know yet, that I was asked the same question earlier at the National Press Club, and I gave an answer, I will tell you the same answer in short. We couldn't agree. It is the EU negotiating, not France, by the way, on the mandate given by the 27 countries. We cannot agree the offer, the proposal, but they technically call it an offer, could not be accepted by Australia, but we would like to keep the conversations going. Now don't ask me for a calendar, I don't want to put the negotiators under pressure.

Journalist: Just on the issue of the war in the Middle East. Over the weekend, Emmanuel Macron said Israel's objective to completely destroy Hamas would result in a decade of war. He called on Israel to clarify its objective, and reiterated calls for a ceasefire and has previously said that Israel has no justification in bombing of civilians. Foreign Minister Wong's called for steps towards an enduring ceasefire. Did you discuss the differences in language between Australia and France, and did you urge Australia to perhaps adjust its position, and Foreign Minister Wong, do you agree with Macron's assessment that Israel should clarify its objectives in regards to Hamas?

French Foreign Minister Colonna: I don't think you'll see much difference in the assessment that we make on the situation in the Middle East. I could subscribe to every word that Senator Wong said at the beginning of this press conference. And you will see in the joint declaration that is about to be published, will be published, is published, that we absolutely agree on the language that, yes, terrorist attacks must be condemned, and we do condemn them, which means that Israel has the right to defend itself, and the duty to do it within the framework of international law, and specifically international humanitarian law.

Now, when it comes to the future of this conflict, absolutely in repeated manner, we want to see a pause. That is the most important or immediate thing we can do, work and continue to working with partners in the region to resume the pause, to make the pause more durable, more sustainable so it can help aid to be delivered into the Gaza Strip to the population who badly needs that, so it can help the release, the liberation of every single hostage, and so it can create a dynamics that is much needed as well.

That is to lead to a ceasefire, and revitalise or, you know, restore the political horizon, because again and again, we do believe that peace and security in the region can only come from a political solution in the form of a two‑state solution addressing the legitimate needs of Palestinians to have their State and the legitimate aspiration of Israel to live in peace with its neighbour.

Foreign Minister Wong: Thanks, Catherine. Look, I think we are extremely closely aligned, I think we all ‑ we both have condemned the October 7 attacks and called for the release of hostages. We both have affirmed that in defending itself the way it defends itself matters, this is in relation to Israel. We have been clear about the importance of respecting international humanitarian law and the conduct of military operations in a lawful manner and the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure.

We, both countries, have expressed our concern about the scale of civilian life, innocent civilian lives lost, and we both support efforts towards further pauses in hostilities and the next steps towards a sustainable ceasefire. And finally the point that Catherine made, which is the political solution. There is ‑ we both are strongly of the view that a political process towards a two‑state solution is the only way to secure security and peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

Journalist: May I just add, so the US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, also said that Israel faces strategic defeat if it fails to heed the warnings of the international community in relation to the civilian casualties. Could I invite you to reflect on those comments?

Foreign Minister Wong: I thought they were ‑ I think, well, both consistent with what I have said previously about these issues, but I thought it was notable that Secretary Austin, with his experience of urban warfare and his statements, if you drive civilians into the arms of the enemy you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat. That's ‑ I thought it was an important statement, notable statement.

Journalist: I just wanted to ask on the PTNW. So Minister, Colonna, we had a report here in October that ‑‑

Foreign Minister Wong: TP ‑‑

Journalist: TPNW. Sorry. We had a report.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: TIAN. No?

Journalist: Sorry.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: We like to do things the other way around, it's called the difference between English and French.

Journalist: Okay. I just wanted to ask about a report saying that a French official said they wanted to press Australia on not signing up to the agreement. I'm just wondering if you raised that and whether it's still your position that Australia shouldn't sign up to the agreement, and then what your response to that, Minister, is ‑ response to the report, sorry, about that Australia shouldn't sign up.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: If you are talking about France's position on this issue, it is quite public and hopefully well known. This treaty goes against the existing architecture on, you know, non‑proliferation and disarmament. In the current circumstances in addition, it could undermine the stability of this architecture, and last but not least, it doesn't take into account the current existing threats, so we're quite opposed to this treaty. Not specifically vis‑a‑vis Australia's looking at it or not looking at it, but as a matter of principle and for the sake of the security and the stability of the international order.

Foreign Minister Wong: And the concerns France raises are consistent with some of the issues we have flagged in relation to the treaty. We understand the motivation of those seeking it. The point we have made is that we will examine it for, you know, the three things that we need to be considered; one is verification and enforcement, the second is universality, and the third is the consistency with the architecture that Catherine describes, the non‑proliferation treaty, which remains the only international architecture which applies to both the nuclear states and the non‑nuclear states. Thank you all very much.

French Foreign Minister Colonna: Thank you.

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