Submarine dispute

French ambassador will return to US as Biden, Macron seek to restore 'confidence'

French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden spoke on the phone Wednesday amid a diplomatic row over submarine contracts, with France vowing to return its recalled ambassador to Washington next week as part of measures to restore "confidence" between the squabbling allies. 

File photo of US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall on June 13, 2021.
File photo of US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall on June 13, 2021. AFP - DOUG MILLS

Macron will send France's ambassador back to the United States after President Joe Biden agreed that consulting France before announcing a security pact with Australia could have prevented a diplomatic row, Macron’s office said. 

France recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia last week after the United States and Britain signed a nuclear submarine deal with Australia, causing Canberra to scrap a previous multi-billion French-designed submarine deal.

Macron and Biden “have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence”, the Élysée Palace and the White House said in a joint statement.

They discussed the implications of the September 15 announcement of the defence announcement between Australia, the US and Britain, and “agreed that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”. 

Macron and Biden will meet at the end of October in Europe.

The French ambassador will undertake “intensive work with senior US officials” after his return to the United States, the statement said.

The United States additionally recognised "the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO”.

Washington also committed to boosting its support for counter-terrorism missions led by European nations in Africa’s Sahel region.

The call lasted approximately 30 minutes and the tone was friendly, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

No decision has yet been made about the French ambassador to Australia, who was also recalled last week, the Élysée Palace said, adding that no phone call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was scheduled.

'A constant feature of French foreign policy'

The row plunged Franco-US ties into what some analysts viewed as the most acute crisis since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Paris vocally opposed.

Macron and Biden met for the first time in person in June at a summit of G7 countries in Cornwall, southwest England, where they were seen smiling broadly together.

Gilles Gressani, president of the Groupe d'Etudes Geopolitiques think tank, said this week that showdowns with the US are "a constant feature of French foreign policy".

But he added that "the intensity of [France's] reaction is striking". 

A 'wake-up call'

France's European allies, meanwhile, have rallied around Paris, but some warned the dispute should not torpedo trade talks.

German Europe Minister Michael Roth on Tuesday said France's diplomatic crisis with the US was a "wake-up call for all of us" on the importance of uniting an EU that is often divided on foreign and security policy.

>> Was France blindsided by AUKUS submarine deal?

The show of solidarity from Germany and the EU's top officials was welcomed by France, which said the breakdown of trust with Washington strengthened the case for Europe to set its own strategic course.

France's minister for European affairs Clément Beaune called the row "a European issue", and not simply a French one, as he arrived at ministerial talks in Brussels.

"I don't think France is overreacting and I don't think France should overreact. But when a situation ... is serious, I think it's also our responsibility to state it very clearly," he said.

EU Council chief Charles Michel said he had a "frank, direct and lively exchange on AUKUS" with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  

The EU internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, warned there was a growing feeling "that something is broken" in Europe's ties with Washington. 

"So it is probably time to pause and reset our EU-US relationship," he said in a speech in Washington. 

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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