US President Joe Biden has requested early talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, France said on Sunday, in an apparent effort to mend fences after a row over a submarines contract sparked rare tensions between the allies.
The announcement came after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected French accusations that Canberra had lied about plans to cancel the contract to buy French submarines, saying he had raised concerns over the deal “some months ago”.
Australia’s decision to tear up the French deal in favour of American nuclear-powered vessels sparked outrage in Paris, with Macron recalling France‘s ambassadors to Canberra and Washington in an unprecedented move.
But French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Sunday that there would be a telephone conversation between Biden and Macron “in the coming days” at the request of the US president.
Macron will ask the US president for “clarification” after the announcement of a US-Australian-British defence pact that prompted Canberra’s cancellation of the huge contract for diesel-electric French vessels.
“We want explanations,” Attal said. The US had to answer for “what looks a lot like a major breach of trust”.
Morrison insisted that he and his ministers had made no secret of their issues with the French vessels.
“I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns,” he told reporters in Sydney. “We made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had on Saturday used distinctly undiplomatic language towards Australia, the US and Britain which is also part of a new three-way security pact announced Wednesday that led to the rupture.
“There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt,” Le Drian told France 2 television.
The recall of the ambassadors for the first time in the history of relations with the countries was “to show how unhappy we are and that there is a serious crisis between us”.
The French contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia was worth Aus$50 billion ($36.5 billion, 31 billion euros) when signed in 2016.
Morrison said he understood France’s disappointment, but added: “I don’t regret the decision to put Australia’s national interest first. Never will.”
Defence Minister Peter Dutton also insisted Canberra had been “upfront, open and honest” with Paris about its concerns over the deal — a claim quickly rejected by French Defence Minister Florence Parly.
“His statement is inaccurate,” she said during a visit to Niger. “We were never informed of Australia’s intentions”.
‘The third wheel’
Le Drian also issued a stinging response to a question over why France had not also recalled its ambassador to Britain over the AUKUS security pact.
“With Britain, there is no need. We know their constant opportunism. So there is no need to bring our ambassador back to explain,” he said.
Of London’s role in the pact he said: “Britain in this whole thing is a bit like the third wheel.”
NATO would have to take account of what has happened as it reconsiders strategy at a summit in Madrid next year, he added.
France would now prioritise developing an EU security strategy when it takes over the bloc’s presidency at the start of 2022, he said.
A source at France’s defence ministry meanwhile said Paris had cancelled a meeting set for this week between its Defence Minister Florence Parly and her British counterpart Ben Wallace.
In London, a Ministry of Defence source said they could neither confirm nor deny the cancellation of the meeting, but said the two countries maintained a “strong and close-working defence partnership with France, as they remain trusted allies of the UK”.
‘Stab in the back’
Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance, widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.
It extends American nuclear submarine technology to Australia, as well as cyber-defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.
Le Drian has described it as a “stab in the back” and said the behaviour of the Biden administration had been comparable to that of Donald Trump, whose sudden changes in policy long exasperated European allies.
French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune has hinted that the row could affect Australia’s chances of making progress towards a trade pact with the EU, which is its third-biggest trading partner.
For America, the row has sparked a deep rift in its oldest alliance and dashed hopes of a rapid post-Trump renaissance in relations.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Saturday stressed the “unwavering” US commitment to its alliance with France.
Australia meanwhile has shrugged off Chinese anger over the nuclear-powered submarines order.
Beijing described the new alliance as an “extremely irresponsible” threat, warning the Western allies that they risked “shooting themselves in the foot”.