US President Joe Biden has acknowledged that the United States had been “clumsy” in cutting France out of a deal to sell Australia nuclear-powered submarines earlier this year. Biden made these remarks in a meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Rome.
It was the first meeting of the US and French leaders as they sought to mend relations following a diplomatic row over the US, UK and Australia security pact reached in September.
Macron spoke first in French as Biden listened. The French president said that the meeting was “important” and that it was key to “look to the future” as the two countries face new challenges. The two shook hands at the conclusion of Macron’s remarks.
The meeting was held at the Villa Bonaparte, the French embassy to the Vatican in the heart of Rome, and comes before the Group of 20 (G20) summit of leaders of the largest economies. Biden had met Pope Francis earlier in the day.
Biden stops short of apologizing
Biden and Macron greeted each other with handshakes and shoulder-grabs before their meeting. Biden did not formally apologise to Macron but conceded that the US should not have caught its oldest ally by surprise with the Australian deal.
Admitting that the submarine deal “was not done with a lot of grace”, Biden said, “I think, what happened was to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy. I was under the impression that France had been informed long before.”
The US-led submarine contract with Australia supplants a prior French deal to supply Australia with diesel-powered submarines.
The US 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.
Macron looks to the future
Macron said the two allies would develop “stronger cooperation” to prevent a similar misunderstanding from happening again.
When asked by media if US-French relations had been repaired, Macron said, “We clarified together what we had to clarify. What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years,” he said.
France had accused the US and Australia of “lying” about the submarine deal, which cost France about $60bn in lost revenue when Australia cancelled its purchase of French submarines.
Meanwhile, US First Lady Jill Biden hosted Brigitte Macron for a “bilateral engagement” on Friday afternoon.
US NSA Jake Sullivan had previewed the meeting, saying the two leaders would “literally cover the waterfront of issues facing the US-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,” Sullivan told reporters travelling with the president.
France’s Sahel conundrum
Macron thanked Biden for “very operational, very concrete decisions” in recent weeks to help the French military in the Sahel region of Africa.
France has about 5,100 soldiers based in Chad and Mali that are conducting coalition military operations against the groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) in the Sahel.
Macron had announced in July, France planned to bring the Sahel operation to an end in 2022 and reduce its forces in the region to about 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers.
The French president had been seeking greater US intelligence and military cooperation for French operations in the Sahel.