Biden’s apparent indifference to AUKUS deal impact on France fuels fury, experts say


President Joe Biden’s new deal to help Australia launch nuclear-powered submarines may have strengthened an alliance in a bid to counter China.

But for France – which recalled its ambassadors to the United States on Friday – the move may have torpedoed the little confidence that had been restored after four years under former President Donald Trump, experts said.

As Biden celebrated the AUKUS new pact with Australia and Britain on Thursday, French officials expressed outrage over the deal, which ended that country’s agreement in 2016 to build sub- sailors for Australia.

“France’s position for a very long time (…) has been to say that the United States is an ally, but the United States is moving away from Europe and cannot be fully reliable,” said Georgina Wright, Europe program manager at Institut Montaigne, a transpartisan non-profit think tank based in Paris.

Now France can feel justified in that position, she said, with Biden proving that “when (the United States) makes a decision, they will move forward and they will not think twice about their allies “.

In France, the immediate reaction to the decision was swift and angry.

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Describing the deal as a “stab in the back”, visibly angry French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday: “We have built a relationship of trust with Australia, and that trust has been betrayed.This is not done between allies.

Of Biden, he said the president’s “brutal, one-sided and unpredictable move” was a reminder of something his predecessor “used to do”.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks at a joint press conference in Weimar, Germany, September 10, 2021.Jens Schlueter / Pool via AP

The comparison with Trump is considered a “major insult” in France, said on Thursday Frédéric Charillon, professor of political science at the French University of Clermont Auvergne.

And within hours, Le Drian’s harsh rebuke translated into action, with the French canceling a gala in Washington that had been slated to mark the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Caps, in which the French stood alongside. of America in its struggle for independence.

Unplugging that party, of course, pales in comparison to Friday afternoon’s escalation of this diplomatic hubbub between Washington and Paris.

Wright said that while the submarine deal itself would have angered French officials, it was the way the news was delivered that probably dealt the biggest blow.

“The decision itself was a blow to the industry in France,” she said, with the country losing a $ 40 billion deal. “You can’t really overestimate the industrial side,” she said in a telephone interview on Friday.

However, Wright said, what really strained France’s relations with the United States “is the way the decision was made.”

“It would seem that the French found out about the same day and that there had been no prior warning of this decision and I think that is perhaps the thing that irritated the most. the French, ”she said.

Charillon shared a similar view, saying by phone Thursday that he believed the awareness was a wake-up call for French officials, who had believed Biden’s promise to strengthen weakened ties under Trump.

A French official told NBC News he first learned of the sale of nuclear submarines through a leaked article in the Australian press on Wednesday morning, prompting them to immediately seek an explanation from the United States. In the end, the United States did not provide France with details of the deal until hours before the announcement.

Alongside his Australian counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to downplay this reality on Thursday, saying he hoped European countries could continue to play “an important role in the Indo-Pacific,” calling France “vital partner”.

The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Illinois (SSN 786) returns home to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam after a deployment to the 7th Fleet area of ​​responsibility on September 13, 2021.Michael B Zingaro / US Navy via AP

“There is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and Pacific partners,” he said, noting that the United States had been in contact with the French for the past 24 hours. at 48 hours to discuss the deal, including before the announcement.

Blinken said he would leave it up to Australia to explain why it went to the United States for its purchase of submarines, with Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton’s explanation appearing to fall flat among French officials.

The French submarines, Dutton said, were simply “not superior” to those of the United States, “and ultimately the decision we made is based on what is in the best interest of the United States. our national security “.

Responding to Dutton’s comments, a French official simply said: “When you want to kill your dog, you say he has rabies.”

Wright said America’s perceived indifference to how the AUKUS Pact would affect France demonstrated a very “America First approach,” with the country already accused of maintaining that approach with its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Vice-Admiral Patrick Chevallereau, who served as French defense attaché in Great Britain from 2015 to 2018, said he understood France’s disappointment, in particular because the nation is “the European country most engaged in the Indo region. -Pacific ”and which has an important presence with its overseas territories and its vast zone of exclusive economic zone.

“I don’t see zero consequences,” he said. “I don’t know what it will be, but first there is the lack of trust … with the European country most involved in the Indo-Pacific.”

Chevallereau said of course France and the United States have deep historical ties, with the European country being the United States’ oldest ally and the two United Nations in key commitments, including to NATO, that Biden reaffirmed after Trump repeatedly called the pact a bad deal. .

“These things will not fall apart tomorrow morning,” he said.

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