French PM Macron expects 'clarifications' from US President Biden over submarine row


Paris - Paris outraged at Australia's secret negotiations with Washington over nuclear subs


Published: Wed 22 Sep 2021, 5:46 PM

Last updated: Wed 22 Sep 2021, 5:58 PM

President Emmanuel Macron will Wednesday press US counterpart Joe Biden for "clarifications" when the two leaders speak for the first time since a fierce row erupted over the sale of submarines to Australia, France's government spokesman said.

Macron was left furious by Australia's decision last week to ditch a 2016 deal to buy diesel submarines from France in favour of nuclear-powered ones from the United States and Britain.

Paris was outraged that Australia negotiated with Washington and London in secret, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced as "treachery" and a "stab in the back".

After a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Gabriel Attal made clear French anger had not abated with an unusually frank statement of Macron's expectations from the scheduled conversation with 78-year-old Biden.

The exchange would be an opportunity to "clarify both the way in which this announcement was made and the way for an American re-engagement in its relationship with an ally," Attal said.

French officials were notified about the loss of the contract just hours before Biden unveiled the new AUKUS security and defence partnership between the three English-speaking countries.

Macron is expecting "clarifications about the American decision to keep a European ally outside of fundamental talks about cooperation in the Indo-Pacific," Attal added.

"We expect our allies to acknowledge that the exchanges and consultations that should have taken place did not, and that this poses a question about confidence, which all of us need to draw conclusions about now."

The timing of the call between Biden and Macron, a week since the row began, also appears intended to send a further message of French discontent.

The French government had let it be known on Sunday that the US president was seeking a conversation, but that Macron was in no hurry to pick up the phone.

Instead, Macron spoke Tuesday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, vowing to "act jointly" in the Indo-Pacific region.

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

After four years of tumultuous relations with ex-president Donald Trump, the spat has also dashed hopes of a complete reset under Biden, who took office in January.

Macron, 43, and Biden met for the first time in person in June at a summit of G7 countries England where they were seen smiling broadly together.

As the row drags on, analysts have been wondering how and when Macron will call an end to the escalating face-off, which has played out just seven months ahead of presidential elections.

The French leader recalled his ambassadors to Washington and Canberra last week in an unprecedented diplomatic protest, while France cancelled a defence ministers' meeting with Britain.

"If Emmanuel Macron gets something from the United States and manages to save face, the French will be grateful to him," Pascale Boniface, director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, told AFP this week.

"If he gets nothing, it will be detrimental to him."

Attal said France and the US needed to begin a process "to create the conditions for confidence to be restored".

As well as an acknowledgement of French interests in the Pacific region, the process should include "full recognition by our American allies of the need to boost European sovereignty as well as the importance of the growing commitment by the Europeans to their own defence and security."

This latter point is a source of tension between Biden and Macron, who has pushed hard during his four-and-a-half years in office for Europeans to invest more in defence and pool resources in order to increase their joint military capabilities.

The US, and some EU members, see this as a potential challenge to NATO, the US-led transatlantic military alliance that has been the cornerstone of European defence since World War II.

Australia's decision to order nuclear-powered submarines was driven by concern about China's commercial and military assertiveness in the Pacific region, where Biden is seeking to build an alliance of democratic states to help contain Beijing.

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