Joe Biden acknowledged on Friday that the US treatment of France had been “clumsy” in its handling of the launch of a new security pact with the UK and Australia last month that had excluded and enraged Paris.
“I think what happened was to use an English phrase . . . clumsy,” the US president told reporters while meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron at the French embassy to the Holy See in Rome on Friday. He added: “It was not done with a lot of grace.”
The US has been attempting to dampen French fury after Washington announced a security pact last month with the UK and Australia, which resulted in the scuppering of a long-planned multibillion-dollar order for French submarines and left French officials in the dark.
It was a blow for Biden’s wider efforts to knit together US allies to counter China more robustly, which have suffered a series of setbacks over the summer despite the president’s repeated protestations that “America is back” on the global diplomatic stage.
Paris had grown suspicious there was a problem with the Australian submarine deal, but US officials repeatedly refused to address their concerns directly. The French ambassador to Washington was informed of the collapse of the submarine deal only after leaks in the press.
The French withdrew their ambassadors to Washington and Canberra after the announcement of the new security deal, which includes a separate agreement for nuclear submarines for Australia.
Even before the announcement of the security pact, named Aukus, close allies including the UK had rounded on the US for its failures during the bungled and deadly withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan and fears for its impact on migration and counter-terrorism efforts.
UK officials publicly criticised Washington decision-making over Afghanistan, and Ben Wallace, defence minister, has since suggested the US was no longer a superpower or a “global power”.
Biden said in his remarks on Friday that he was under the impression Paris had already been informed “long before” about the submarine deal not coming through, although he did not say who he thought had told them. He said the US had no older or “more loyal” ally than France.
On meeting with Macron ahead of the G20 summit in Rome this weekend, the pair posed with their arms around each other. When asked if he needed to apologise, Biden responded “to whom?” and said the pair had “already talked”.
Macron said they had “clarified together what we had to clarify” but that it was “important . . . to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future”.
“What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years,” he added.
In a statement following Friday’s meetings, the US committed additional assets to support French-led counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel, pledged to support efforts to boost broader European defence and acknowledged the security contribution played by France in the Indo-Pacific.
Both presidents also committed to “intensify co-operation on space issues” and ensure transparency in US-French discussions.
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