US and UK try to ease tensions with France over submarine deal ‘crisis’

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron (L) have a conversation ahead of the NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels, on June 14, 2021.

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LONDON — The United States and the United Kingdom are looking to ease tensions with France after a deal with Australia that Paris described as a “stab in the back.”

U.S. President Joe Biden on Sunday requested a call with French President Emmanuel Macron. A spokesperson for the French presidency said Monday that the call will happen in the coming days and that Macron wishes to get some “clarifications.”

Meanwhile, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday said he is “very proud” of his country’s relationship with France and that “our love for France is ineradicable.”

It comes after news last week that Australia was canceling a submarine deal with France and instead was buying new technology from the United States, in cooperation with the U.K.

It’s not OK between us, it’s not OK at all. It means there is a crisis.

Jean Yves Le Drian

France’s foreign affairs minister

The new arrangement will see Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines rather than conventional ones — in what some experts describe as an attempt by the United States to step up its position against China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Beijing has heavily criticized the deal between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, known as AUKUS, calling it “extremely irresponsible.”

‘There was a lie … a major breach of trust’

France has not held back following news of the deal and went as far as recalling its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia.

“There has been a lie, there has been duplicity, there has been a major breach of trust, there has been contempt. So it’s not OK between us, it’s not OK at all. It means there is a crisis,” Jean Yves Le Drian, the French minister for foreign affairs, said Saturday to Info France 2.

“We recalled our ambassadors to try to understand and show these former partner countries our deep discontent. But also, once they are here we will have the occasion to reevaluate our position in order to defend to the best extent our interests both in Australia and United States,” the minister added.

Le Drian also said that, so far, there isn’t a date to send the two ambassadors back. France has also canceled a meeting scheduled for this week between Paris and London.

A spokesperson for the French presidency on Monday said the original contract between Paris and Canberra includes “compensations,” but did not disclose any values. When Australia signed the deal with France in 2016, the cost of the submarines totalled $40 billion, according to Reuters.

Europe’s diplomatic innocence

“By escalating the dispute, Macron hopes to bring a large chunk of French domestic opinion onto his side; Macron also hopes to force other EU countries to grasp that they now need to take sides, not perpetually equivocate on European defence and industrial strategy,” Mujtaba Rahman, director at the consultancy firm Eurasia, said in a note Saturday.

These topics are particularly important for Macron as France gears up for a presidential election in April. The country is also set to lead discussions at the EU level when it gets the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in January.

“I think that Europe is emerging from diplomatic innocence,” France’s foreign affairs chief Le Drian said.

In fact, Josep Borrell, who heads the EU’s foreign affairs portfolio, had said in the wake of the announcement: “We must survive on our own, as others do.”

Australia does not regret its decision

In the meantime, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended his decision and denied that France was lied to.

“Ultimately, this was a decision about whether the submarines that were being built, at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, were going to be able to do a job that we needed it to do when they went into service and our strategic judgement based on the best possible of intelligence and defence advice was that it would not,” Morrison said Sunday, according to the BBC.

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