World

Contentious submarine deal with Australia was 'clumsy,' Biden admits to France's Macron

Working to patch things up with an old ally, President Joe Biden told French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday that the U.S. had been "clumsy" in its handling of a secret U.S.-British submarine deal with Australia, an arrangement that left France in the lurch and rattled Europe's faith in American loyalty.

U.S. president stopped short of apology over contract supplanting prior French deal

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron are seen in Rome on Friday. The two leaders discussed new ways to co-operate in the Indo-Pacific, a move meant to soothe French tempers over being cut out of a U.S.-U.K.-Australia partnership that accompanied a recent submarine deal. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Working to patch things up with an old ally, President Joe Biden told French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday that the U.S. had been "clumsy" in its handling of a secret U.S.-British submarine deal with Australia, an arrangement that left France in the lurch and rattled Europe's faith in American loyalty.

Biden and Macron greeted each other with handshakes and shoulder grabs before their first face-to-face meeting since the deal was publicly announced in September, marking the latest American effort to try to smooth hurt French sensibilities. Biden didn't formally apologize to Macron, but conceded the U.S. should not have caught its oldest ally by surprise.

"I think what happened was — to use an English phrase — what we did was clumsy," Biden said, noting the submarine deal "was not done with a lot of grace."

"I was under the impression that France had been informed long before," he said. 

The U.S.-led submarine contract supplanted a prior French deal to supply Australia with its own diesel-powered submarines. The U.S. argued that the move, which will arm the Pacific ally with higher-quality nuclear-powered boats, will better enable Australia to contain Chinese encroachment in the region.

A U.S. Navy submarine is seen in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sept. 1. A deal between the U.S., Britain and Australia will arm Australia with higher-quality nuclear-powered subs to better enable the Pacific ally to contain Chinese encroachment in the region. (Chief Mass Communication Specialist Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy/The Associated Press)

Macron said the two allies would develop "stronger co-operation" to prevent a similar misunderstanding from happening again.

"We clarified together what we had to clarify," he said, when asked if U.S.-France relations had been repaired. "What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years."

France seeks U.S. intelligence support

To that end, Macron's goal for the meeting was securing greater U.S. intelligence and military co-operation supporting French anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel region of Africa.

Macron praised Biden's "very operational, very concrete decisions" in recent weeks that helped the French military fighting Islamic extremists in the Sahel.

Biden and Macron also discussed new ways to co-operate in the Indo-Pacific, a move meant to soothe French tempers over being excised from the U.S.-U.K.-Australia partnership that accompanied the submarine deal.

Other topics on the agenda include China, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as climate change, before next week's UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The French, who lost out on more than $60 billion from the submarine deal, have argued that the highest levels of the Biden administration misled them about the talks with Australia and even levied criticism that Biden was adopting the tactics of his bombastic predecessor, Donald Trump.

France is especially angry over being kept in the dark about a major geopolitical shift, and having its interests ignored in the Indo-Pacific — where France has territories with two million people and 7,000 troops.

U.S. working to soothe tensions

The row challenged Biden's carefully honed image of working to stabilize and strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance after Trump's presidency. For the first time in some 250 years of diplomatic relations, France pulled its ambassador to the U.S. in protest.

U.S. officials, from Biden on down, have worked for weeks to try to soothe tensions, though not so much that Biden himself went to France. Instead, he dispatched Vice-President Kamala Harris to visit in early November.

In a concession by the White House, the Biden-Macron meeting in Rome was organized and hosted by France at Villa Bonaparte, the French embassy to the Holy See, which Macron's office called "politically important." Meanwhile, first lady Jill Biden was to host Brigitte Macron for a "bilateral engagement" Friday afternoon.

Biden and Macron meet at the French Embassy to the Vatican in Rome on Friday. While Biden and the U.S. focus on Asia, Macron is seeking to bolster Europe's independent defence capabilities. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

Biden also praised France as an "extremely valued partner" and a "power in and of itself."

"There is too much that we have done together, suffered together, celebrated together and valued together for anything to … break this up," he said.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden and Macron would "literally cover the waterfront of issues facing the U.S.-France alliance," including counterterrorism in the Middle East, China and trade and economic issues.

"We feel very good about the intensive engagement that we've had with France over the course of the past few weeks."

French 'muscle'

Following their meeting, the leaders were expected to issue a joint statement outlining areas of mutual co-operation, including the Indo-Pacific and economic and technological collaberation.

While the U.S. focuses on Asia, Macron is seeking to bolster Europe's independent defence capabilities, with more military equipment and military operations abroad.

France is also determined to put "muscle" into Europe's geopolitical strategy toward an increasingly assertive China, France's ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, told The Associated Press earlier this month.

France wants Western allies to "divide up roles" instead of competing against one another, and for the Americans to be "allies as loyal and as available for their European partners as always," according to the top French official.

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