Biden admits to Macron that sub deal handling was ‘clumsy’

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) welcomes US President Joe Biden before their meeting at the French Embassy to the Vatican in Rome on Oct 29, 2021.
(LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP)

US President Joe Biden said that his administration had been “clumsy” in handling a new defense pact with Australia while meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, as the US continues to work to repair a key alliance.

“What we did was clumsy, it was not done with a lot of grace,” he said, sitting next to Macron in Rome as they talked ahead of the Group of 20 leaders summit. “I had been under the impression long before that France had been informed” of the deal. 

“There’s too much we have done together, suffered together, celebrated together,” he said. “France is an extremely, extremely valuable partner.”

There’s too much we have done together, suffered together, celebrated together. France is an extremely, extremely valuable partner.

Joe Biden, US President

Macron, who greeted Biden with a friendly pat on the shoulder, said that Paris and Washington have been working on stronger coordination and on strengthening the partnership between the European Union and NATO.

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“What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, coming months, coming years,” he said

The French president signaled that the dust-up may be settled, but it’s important to prevent a similar flap in the future.

US President Joe Biden, left, greets French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at La Villa Bonaparte in Rome, Oct.29, 2021. (EVAN VUCCI / AP)

Macron suggested that the bilateral exchange could dissipate fear from some EU partners that his push for European sovereignty in defense might alienate the transatlantic relationship, telling reporters later, “There was a tension, a misunderstanding that sometimes creates tensions between Europeans on the compatibility of EU and NATO.”

Asked if the crisis is over, he said, “Trust is like love, declarations are good. Proof is better.”

French President Emmanuel Macron signaled that the dust-up may be settled, but it’s important to prevent a similar flap in the future

The in-person session was the culmination of six weeks of diplomacy aimed at getting the oldest US alliance back on track after Australia’s decision to cancel a $66 billion submarine contract with France in favor of a new security pact and nuclear-powered submarine deal with the US and UK.

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The French have said they were not notified about the submarine deal ahead of time, in a slight that amounted to “a stab in the back,” French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Sept 16, the day after the agreement was announced. The Biden administration had anticipated some backlash from France but was surprised by just how forceful it was.

‘Brutal, unilateral’

Some anger was directed at Australia and the UK, but Macron’s team focused on the US and began likening Biden to Trump. “What concerns me as well is the American behavior,” Le Drian said. “This brutal, unilateral, unpredictable decision looks very much like what Mr Trump used to do.” Other French officials and commentators have offered the same comparison.

While the spat was prompted by diplomatic missteps, Macron has sought to use it to his domestic political advantage ahead of his next election in 2022, in which multiple far-right candidates are running to unseat him. Marine Le Pen, one of his rivals, has called the incident a “humiliation” for France. 

Macron took the unusual step of recalling his US and Australian ambassadors on Sept.17. The Biden administration, meanwhile, was conciliatory in its diplomatic outreach, asking French officials what they needed and conceding that it had let down a key ally. 

When Biden and Macron spoke several days later, they “agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” the two countries said in a joint readout. “President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard.”

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When French Ambassador to the US Philippe Etienne returned to Washington after two weeks away, top Biden officials made sure to welcome him back, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hosting him at the White House and Secretary of State Antony Blinken also meeting with him. Blinken and Sullivan have also held high-level meetings in France.

Even so, nearly two weeks after returning to the US, Etienne told Bloomberg Television that there’s “still a lot of work to do” to mend the relationship. The two countries have identified European security, the Indo-Pacific region and counterterrorism in the Sahel region of Africa as key areas for future cooperation.

Vice-President Kamala Harris plans to Paris in November for a pair of conferences and to meet with Macron. The Elysee said the French president was “pleased” to be able to host her.