ROME — President Joe Biden met with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday ahead of the G-20 summit in an effort to ease tensions with one of America's oldest allies caused by a disagreement over a submarine deal.
The sit-down is the first face-to-face meeting since French officials said they felt blindsided last month by a U.S. decision to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, undercutting a deal the French thought they had in place with the Australians and putting allies on edge that the America First mentality of Donald Trump hadn’t completely faded with the former president's departure from office.
Biden said the episode "was not done with a lot of grace." He said he "was under the impression France had been informed before."
"What we did was clumsy," he said, adding, "I want to be clear: France is an extremely valuable partner."
The president was over an hour late for Friday's meeting at the French Embassy to the Vatican after his sit-down with Pope Francis ran long.
When asked by reporters as he arrived whether he should apologize, Biden quipped: "to whom?"
After his meeting with Biden, Macron told reporters: “We are building the trust again. Trust is like love. Declaration is good, but proof is better.”
Earlier, when asked if relations between the two countries had been mended, 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.
Biden's first trip to Europe as president in June "was a real celebration of multilateralism and working hand in hand with our allies and partners," Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. "Four and a half months later, we've gone from 'America is back' to 'America is stabbing France in the back.'"
The U.S.-Australia security alliance, known as AUKUS, also includes the United Kingdom, and the pact effectively canceled a lucrative 2016 Australian-France submarine deal.
The U.S. decision to secretly negotiate a new deal drew outrage from Paris. The French temporarily recalled their country’s ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia, canceled a Washington gala and issued a number of statements critical of the Biden administration.
The Biden administration, focused on countering the growing power of China, viewed the nuclear submarine deal as a way to strengthen ties with Australia, an important Pacific ally, while boosting Australia's power in the region. France similarly had hoped that the submarine contract would strengthen their own military role in the Indo-Pacific region and allow them to play a more central role in Europe's response to a rising China.
Since the deal was announced, the U.S. has made a number of efforts to smooth things over. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged in a visit to Paris this month that the U.S. could have "communicated better," adding that "we sometimes tend to take for granted" the U.S. relationship with France. Vice President Kamala Harris also announced that she would travel to Paris in November, her third foreign trip since taking office, and Biden has spoken on the phone with Macron.
AUKUS will allow Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology that the U.S. had only previously shared with Britain. The pact also allows for greater collaboration among the three countries on cyber capabilities and artificial intelligence, as well as in other areas.
It will also make Australia the seventh country in the world to have nuclear-powered submarines, after the U.S., Britain, France, China, India and Russia. Unlike those other countries, Australia does not have nuclear weapons.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan didn’t say what Biden would seek to cover with Macron, but in a preview of the G-20 trip to reporters, he pushed back on the notion there is a rift between the United States and its allies.
"After a lot of commentary in recent weeks about the state of the transatlantic relationship, the United States and Europe head into these two summits aligned and united on the major elements of the global agenda," Sullivan said.
In a statement early Friday Macron's office said the two would meet “with the aim of restoring confidence and relaunching the Franco-American relationship.”
Macron, who arrived at the French Embassy in Rome hours ahead of Biden, ignored shouted questions from the U.S. press corp about whether he was still upset with Biden.
Along with Macron, Biden met on Friday with the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who is hosting this year's G-20 meeting, and with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
At a summit of European leaders this month, Macron said that the G-20 was the "right occasion" to see how he and Biden could "re-engage" following last month's dispute.
Some commitments the U.S. could make to France to lessen tensions could include greater support for European defense efforts, more support for French counterterrorism military efforts in the Sahel region of Africa, or an elevation of French participation in the Indo-Pacific region, said Conley.
The White House said those issues were among the topics Biden and Macron discussed in a phone call last week.