Paris: Calling American and Australian behaviour “unacceptable between allies and partners,” France announced Friday that it was recalling its ambassadors to both countries in protest over President Joe Biden’s decision to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
It was the first time in the history of the long alliance between France and the United States, dating back to 1778, that a French ambassador has been recalled to Paris in this way for consultations. The decision by President Emmanuel Macron reflects the extent of French outrage at what it has a called a “brutal” American decision and a “stab in the back” from Australia.
In a statement, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said the decision was made by Macron, who is understood to be furious about the way the United States, Britain and Australia negotiated the deal without informing France.
Australia on Wednesday cancelled a $66 billion agreement to purchase French-built, conventionally powered submarines hours before the deal with Washington and London was announced.
“At the request of the President of the Republic, I have decided to immediately recall our two ambassadors to the United States and Australia to Paris for consultations,” Le Drian’s statement said. “This exceptional decision is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on 15 September by Australia and the United States.”
Strained as relations were between Europe and the Trump administration over issues including climate change, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the role of the European Union, they never deteriorated to the point of the recall of a European ambassador.
Usually used against adversaries
The temporary return of the ambassadors to Paris amounts to a severe diplomatic rebuke that is usually used against adversaries. Le Drian made it clear that his country saw the actions of the United States and Australia as a serious breach of trust.
In an editorial, Le Monde, the leading French daily, said: “For any who still doubted it, the Biden Administration is no different from the Trump administration on this point: The United States comes first, whether it’s in the strategic, economic, financial or health fields. ‘America First’ is the guiding line of the foreign policy of the White House.”
The Biden administration, bent on containing the growing power of China, sees the nuclear submarine deal as a way to cement ties with a Pacific ally that is increasingly at odds with Beijing while also making that ally more powerful.
“We have been in close touch with our French partners on their decision to recall Ambassador Etienne to Paris for consultations,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said - referring to Philippe Etienne, the veteran diplomat who is the French ambassador in Washington. “We understand their position and will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance.”
The United States appears determined to play down the rift with France, portraying the conflict as just another disagreement among friends. France, however, appears to view the US decision as not only offensive in its secretive preparation but also indicative of a fundamental strategic shift that calls into question the very nature of the Atlantic alliance.
Le Drian’s statement said “the very conception we have of our alliances, our partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe” would be affected. Where before France believed it could work hand-in-hand with the United States in confronting China, despite French reservations over perceived US aggressiveness, it now appears to be reconsidering that view.
Macron had made the growing French relationship with Australia a cornerstone of a strategy to expand Europe’s role in meeting the challenge of China’s rise. Because an American company, Lockheed Martin, was a partner in the French submarine deal with Australia, reached in 2016, the contract was viewed in Paris as an example of how France and the United States could work together in Asia.
That belief has now been shredded, replaced by bitterness, suspicion and a measure of incredulity that the Biden administration would treat France this way.
A senior French diplomatic official described the fallout as a crisis in French-American relations. He said the French foreign and defence ministers had tried in vain, starting a week ago, to reach their US counterparts and speak to them on Monday or Tuesday.
He also said that until Macron received a letter Wednesday morning from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling him the French submarine deal was scrapped, Australia had given no indication that it would pull out of the deal.
Accepted French reassurances
Australia had asked in June whether France believed its attack-class submarines were still up to meeting the threats they might face and accepted French reassurances that they were, he said. US officials have suggested Australia made clear to France as early as June that the deal was dead.
US officials have conceded that they first informed the French on Wednesday morning, hours before Biden’s announcement of the deal. They also said that top US officials had tried, unsuccessfully, to schedule meetings with their French counterparts before news of the deal leaked in the Australian and American press - a mirror image of the French claim.
In the face of a disastrous imbroglio, both sides were trying to pass the blame. It appeared clear, however, that France had been blindsided by friends on an issue of critical strategic and economic importance.
In a briefing with reporters Friday before the recall announcement by the French government, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, downplayed the damage to the relationship between the two countries.
“As the president said, we cooperate closely with France on shared priorities both in the Indo-Pacific region and we’ll continue to do so here in the Security Council,” she said. “Good friends have disagreements, but that’s the nature of friendship and that’s - because you’re friends, you can have disagreements and continue to work on those areas of cooperation.”
She added, “We don’t see those tensions changing the nature of our friendship.”
In Paris, however, there was no sign of words like “cooperation” and no indication that France was ready to declare anything remotely resembling business as usual.
Macron faces an election in seven months. With right-wing nationalists challenging him strongly, the way he responds to what is being portrayed here as a serious insult will be closely watched.
The French president is certain to turn to his European partners, and particularly Germany, as he reassesses the Western alliance and Asian policy.
As Le Monde put it, “Beyond French sensibilities, it is the place of Europe and its role in the world that have been thrust into question. Where does Europe want to stand in the global realignment happening in the shadow of the America-China confrontation?”