Macron and Biden finally speak about submarine crisis but tensions linger

French ambassador to return to Washington as crisis over new ‘Aukus’ alliance eases

President Joe Biden and President Emmanuel Macron finally spoke to one another on the telephone on Wednesday, one week after Australia, the United Kingdom and United States enraged France by announcing the formation of a new alliance in the Indo-Pacific region called Aukus.

At the same time, Australia cancelled a multibillion-euro contract to purchase 12 conventional submarines from France because it prefers to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US.

France called the alliance, which was negotiated in secret since last spring, and the abrogation of what it called the contract of the century, “a stab in the back”.

Mr Macron has reportedly been in a state of “cold anger” over the “betrayal”. He has not spoken of it publicly, but French officials have criticised it abundantly.

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The White House said the telephone conversation was "friendly", a term not used by the Élysée. A joint statement issued afterwards noted that the call took place "at the request of" Mr Biden. It said the two leaders will meet in person at the end of October, presumably at the Group of 20 summit in Italy. A separate meeting elsewhere could emphasise the desire to repair damage caused by the week-long diplomatic crisis.

Softer language

France’s ambassador to Washington, Philippe Étienne, will resume his post next week, the statement said. The Élysée said that no decision has been taken regarding the return to Canberra of Jean-Pierre Thébault, who was previously ambassador to Dublin.

The language of the joint statement was considerably softer than that used by the Élysée prior to the conversation. The Élysée had referred to “the crisis of trust” and said Mr Macron expected “clarifications regarding the American decision to exclude a European ally from exchanges” regarding the formation of Aukus.

The joint statement said the two leaders “agreed that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies”.

Mr Macron was particularly offended that Mr Biden made no mention of his negotiations with the British and Australian prime ministers when the US and French presidents met at the G7 summit in Cornwall in June. According to the New York Times, the three English-speaking leaders put finishing touches on their alliance the same day that Mr Macron met Mr Biden.

Only hours before Australia announced it was breaking its contract with France to buy US nuclear-powered submarines, the French received a letter from Australian officials saying they were “satisfied with the expected performance of the submarines and the way the programme was advancing”.

Prior to Wednesday’s conversation, the Élysée said that Mr Macron wanted “acts . . . not only words”. The joint statement was strong on words and extremely vague on acts. The leaders will “open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures towards common objectives”, it said.

French and EU officials have repeatedly said that Mr Biden's unilateral approach to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the secret formation of the Aukus alliance must give impetus to moves towards more integrated European defence.

Mr Macron demanded “full recognition by our American allies of the necessity of strengthening European sovereignty, as well as the importance of the growing commitment of Europeans to their defence and security”, the Élysée had said.

Diplomatic crisis

Mr Biden stopped short of endorsing Mr Macron's desire for European "strategic autonomy" from Nato. The joint statement said the US president "reaffirms the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region" and "also recognises the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence . . . complementary to Nato".

Paris and Washington appear keen to end the diplomatic crisis, but French and European resentment over Washington’s cavalier handling of the episode is likely to linger. The UK’s relations with France have also been damaged. French officials have called Britain “a fifth wheel on the carriage” and “a vassal” to the US.

Prime minister Boris Johnson spoke of France in equally offhand terms during a visit to Washington on Tuesday. Speaking outside the US Capitol, Mr Johnson indulged in mocking comments in Franglais, urging "some of our dearest friends" to "prenez un grip" and "donnez-moi un break". The Aukus alliance was "a great step forward for global security" and was "not exclusive", Mr Johnson said.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times