72 hours after Australia canceled the agreement with France for the supply of French submarines last week by Australia in favor of the United States, Paris recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra for consultations. The diplomats have already returned to their homeland and reported the situation to the leadership.
France has never before resorted to such a measure with the United States. In international law, French experts remind, recalling an ambassador for consultations means an expression of extreme dissatisfaction with the behavior of the country of accreditation. Although this step does not lead to a break in diplomatic relations, it seriously weakens them.
Why did Paris make this decision? In the French corridors, power is, of course, saddened by heavy economic losses following the cancellation of the 2019 Franco-Australian agreement. The value of the contract, which envisaged the delivery of 12 submarines for the Australian Navy by the French shipbuilding company Naval Group (“Neval Group”), reached 56 billion euros. But most of all, the French side was struck by the treachery with which the Allies acted, destroying this agreement.
Negotiations behind France’s back
Washington, London and Canberra have been negotiating behind France’s back for months on a new trilateral security partnership, AUKUS, focusing on the Indo-Pacific. One of his specific projects will be the construction of eight nuclear submarines for Australia using American and British technologies. Experts believe that the treaty was basically agreed upon in the course of tacit contacts between three delegations on the sidelines of the June G7 summit in Cornwall, England.
France was not informed about these negotiations. Moreover, just days after the G7 meeting, President Emmanuel Macron received Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Elysee Palace. The guest politely listened to the solemn assessments that the French leader gave to the contract with his country in the presence of the press. Morrison then did not say a word about the fact that the order for submarines, with his personal assistance and British mediation, had already been intercepted by the United States.
France did not recall the ambassador from Great Britain. As it is believed in Paris, in this deal, London’s behavior was reduced to its usual “opportunism.” Nevertheless, France refused to hold a bilateral meeting of the heads of the military departments, which was supposed to take place this week in the British capital.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied claims by American officials that they consulted with French counterparts before forging a new partnership. According to him, this story showed “duplicity, contempt and lies.” “In relations with an ally, they do not behave like that,” said the head of French diplomacy. When asked whether he then discussed the situation with the American counterpart Anthony Blinken, the minister answered in the negative. In his opinion, there are grounds for France to ask itself the question “about the strength of the alliance with the United States.”
Commenting on the AUKUS trilateral partnership, Le Drian expressed Paris’ disagreement with US actions in the Indo-Pacific region. “We state the formation of a new strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, initiated by the United States. This is a very confrontational strategy from a military point of view,” he warned.
In the eyes of French geopolitical analysts, the episode confirms that President Joe Biden’s administration is doing everything it can to attract partners to help it “contain China.” The new Washington administration fears that the PRC may bypass the United States and become the world’s first economic power in the 2030s. Militarily rivalry is also forecasted.
According to Jean Molny, an expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, during one of the NATO meetings, France and Germany proposed to the American partner to moderate the anti-Chinese rhetoric. That is why the United States, according to the expert, prefers to deal with “more obedient” members of the alliance.
According to Paris, the project for a new deal between the United States and Australia was initiated by a small group of people and not even all members of governments were involved in the plans. “Basically, there is not much difference between [Presidents Barack] Obama, [Donald] Trump and Biden,” said former French ambassador to Washington Gerard Haro. In his opinion, the United States is completely indifferent to the interests of the allies and considers it more expedient to work with Australia and Great Britain, which agree with the role of subordinates.
How the crisis will affect NATO
French political analysts are asking how the submarine crisis will affect NATO. Le Drian recalled that on the initiative of Macron, the North Atlantic Alliance is now preparing a new strategic concept. It should be considered at the NATO summit in Madrid next year. According to the minister, “what has happened now will affect the definition of this strategy.”
Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, considers US actions in relation to the French contract for the supply of submarines to Australia as a new example of disregard for the interests of partners. “The unilateral behavior of the United States reduces the strength of the North Atlantic Alliance,” the researcher warned. He recalled that the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan took place without consulting the European allies. France, Boniface stressed, therefore raises the question of the need for “strategic autonomy of Europe.”
How long will the ambassadors be absent?
Diplomatic observers are unanimous in the opinion that the humiliation of France was Biden’s big mistake. Even those who argue that the competitive advantage was on the side of the United States, which offered Australia nuclear powered submarines, are inclined to this conclusion. But France is also building nuclear submarines and could discuss this issue in partnership.
The absence of the French Ambassador Philippe Etienne in Washington, in all likelihood, will prevent the new US Ambassador to Paris, Denise Bauer, from assuming his duties. Prior to being nominated by the US president in July, she chaired the Women for Biden election committee.
The French embassy in the United States, according to diplomatic experts, may remain without a head of mission for several days or several months. The length of this period depends on which decision France is leaning towards. She views the problem not only as economic, but also as political and strategic.
Apparently, Washington did not foresee the harshness of Paris’s reaction. So far, the French side has agreed to discuss the situation at the presidential level.
Macron’s talk with Biden is expected in the coming days. Will France agree to return its ambassador to Washington without serious advances from the American side?