U.S. President Joe Biden tried to cool a diplomatic blow-up with French President Emmanuel Macron Wednesday, conceding Washington should have consulted Paris over an Indo-Pacific security pact that enraged France.
In a joint statement after a phone call between the two leaders, the United States also offered further language intended to placate Paris. It said Biden would meet Macron in Europe next month, backed French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific and supported greater European defense capabilities.
The call between the two presidents took place a week after Australia announced it was pulling out of a multi-billion dollar submarine supply deal with France and forming a new security and technology-sharing pact with the United States and Britain, which would include the construction of U.S. submarines.
The move, a response to Chinese military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, sparked a diplomatic crisis as it infuriated the French government, which accused its U.S., Australian and British allies of a stab in the back. France took the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra, threatened to torpedo EU-Australian trade negotiations and pushed for the postponement of EU-U.S. talks on technology and trade.
As part of Wednesday’s efforts to calm the waters, Macron agreed the French ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Étienne, would return to Washington next week, the joint statement said.
Importantly for France, the statement conceded the United States should not have left France in the dark about the security pact — although that concession was more explicit in the French version of the text. It said the two leaders “agreed that open consultations between allies on questions of strategic interest for France and European partners would have allowed this situation to be avoided.”
The White House version stated only that “the situation would have benefitted” from such consultations.
“The two leaders have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures toward common objectives,” the White House statement also said, adding that Biden and Macron’s meeting next month was intended “to reach shared understandings and maintain momentum in this process.”
While French officials will welcome the warm words from the United States, it is unclear whether any of them will be backed up with actions, such as new programs or financial commitments.
Biden reaffirmed “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region,” including recognizing EU’s strategy for the region, published on the day of the announcement of the new three-way security agreement, known as AUKUS. That partnership was interpreted in Paris as an attempt by Washington to crowd France and the EU out of the Indo-Pacific.
Biden also recognized “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense” — a key priority for Macron. But that declaration came with an important caveat, making clear that such an effort should contribute “positively to transatlantic and global security” and be “complementary to NATO.”
While French officials insist greater European defense capability would not weaken NATO, some other European allies and NATO officials argue it could undermine the transatlantic alliance.
Finally, Macron got explicit reassurance from Biden on continued U.S. support to France’s counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel region of Africa. American military intelligence support has been crucial for France’s operations, but there have been doubts about whether the U.S. would continue to provide it.
The AUKUS pact has also frayed already strained relations between the U.K. and France.
Asked by reporters while visiting the U.S. if he could understand why the French were so upset, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “It’s just one of those things, there are no easy ways of having these conversations. It’s a very human thing to delay the conversation until the last possible moment, I don’t know if anyone’s been in that situation in their emotional life, but it’s very human to put it off.”
He added: “I think everybody has been a bit taken aback by the strength of the French reaction and we all want to reach out, everyone wants to reach out to Paris and try to sort something out.”
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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