AFP, September 22, 2021 — US President Joe Biden and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron spoke for the first time on Wednesday since a fierce row erupted over the sale of submarines to Australia, with both leaders agreeing to ease tensions.
Macron was left furious by Australia’s decision last week to ditch a 2016 deal to buy diesel submarines from France in favour of nuclear-powered ones from the United States and Britain, which had been secretly negotiated.
In a joint statement issued after the call, the leaders vowed to launch a process of “in-depth consultations” to restore confidence and to meet in Europe at the end of October at an unspecified location.
In what amounted to an acknowledgement of French anger, the statement from the White House said that “the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”.
The statement also said the US recognised the need for stronger European defence to complement the NATO military alliance, a key idea repeatedly floated by the French leader.
In a first concrete sign of a slackening of tensions, Macron agreed to send back France’s ambassador to Washington who was recalled to Paris last week in a diplomatic protest.
The October meeting between Macron and Biden would meanwhile seek “to reach shared understandings and maintain momentum in this process” to restore confidence, the statement said.
France was particularly outraged that Australia negotiated with Washington and London in secret, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced as “treachery” and a “stab in the back”.
As well as a huge commercial setback, the loss of the deal was also a major blow to France’s security strategy in the Pacific region.
The submarine row plunged Franco-US ties into what some analysts view as the most acute crisis since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Paris opposed.
After four years of tumultuous relations with ex-president Donald Trump, the spat also dashed hopes of a complete reset under Biden, who took office in January aiming to rebuild frazzled ties with Europe.
Observers and some of France’s European partners had begun wondering how and when the French leader would call an end to the face-off, which is playing out just seven months ahead of presidential elections.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “time for some of our dearest friends around the world to ‘prenez un grip’ (get a grip)” in comments in Washington on Wednesday that mixed French and English.
“‘Donnez-moi un break’ because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security,” he told Sky News.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose country is staunchly pro-American, defended Biden as “very loyal” and warned against turning “challenges which will always exist between allies into something they should not be.”
The issue of EU defence is a sensitive issue between Biden and Macron, who has pushed hard during his four-and-a-half years in office for Europeans to invest more in defence and pool resources in order to increase their joint military capabilities.
The US, and some EU members including Denmark and Baltic countries, see this as a potential challenge to NATO, the US-led transatlantic military alliance that has been the cornerstone of European defence since World War II.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly argued against the idea of France withdrawing from NATO command structures, which some politicians in France have suggested in the wake of the submarines snub.
“Is it worth slamming the door on NATO? I don’t think so,” she said on Wednesday, while adding that “political dialogue is non-existent in NATO.”
Australia’s decision to order nuclear-powered submarines was driven by concern about China’s commercial and military assertiveness in the Pacific region, where Biden is seeking to build an alliance of democratic states to help contain Beijing. By Stuart Williams and Adam Plowright