At a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Rome, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron displayed renewed harmony after the conflict surrounding the submarine contract. The U.S. president is using unusual language, and his French colleague is already thinking about the next election.
There was much hugging, hand-shaking and patting of arms in Villa Bonaparte, the seat of the French Embassy at the Holy See. That was already unusual in itself. On the sidelines of the first big in-person summit since the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago, the Group of 20 summit (consisting of the leading rich and developing nations) in Rome, President Joe Biden and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, used the regained physical intimacy to make a symbolic showing of their political alignment after a recent diplomatic conflict that had strained relations between the two countries. The fact that Biden accepted an invitation to the French Embassy for the meeting was already a sign of confidence in the relationship.
The conflict arose in the middle of September when Paris discovered that Washington had allegedly agreed to a security pact for the Indo-Pacific region with the British and Australians behind France’s back. Australia subsequently terminated an arms deal for the purchase of 12 French submarines and instead made a deal with the United States and the United Kingdom.
Paris Complained about a ‘Stab in the Back’
The event caused a huge diplomatic uproar. That did not change the fact that Australia was publicly dissatisfied about delays and increased delivery costs. Furthermore, for ecological reasons, the kinds of nuclear-powered submarines the British and Americans offered have become preferable to the French model, which runs on diesel. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke of a “stab in the back” in referring to the Americans. He said he might have expected something like that from Donald Trump, but not his successor.
Now Biden has said the United States was “clumsy” in handling the deal. He himself was convinced that the French had already been advised about the new state of affairs. This also sounds a bit clumsy, something closer to a half-baked apology. Biden conceded that internal communications in the White House are anything but reliable. Or was that just an excuse? Macron seemed to be content. “What really matters now,” he said, “is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years.”
Macron and Biden have spoken twice by phone in recent weeks. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made a stop in Paris. However, the in-person meeting between the presidents was important to them both. After all, France and the United States are old allies, and Macron has elections coming up. It is now expected that Washington and Paris will emphasize their many common interests in the near future as the basis for close cooperation. However, there is deep-seated shame involved here. For France and its arms industry, the broken deal doesn’t just mean a loss of 8 billion euros (approximately $9.2 billion). France is also worried that its own influence in the very geopolitically important Pacific region is fading.