PARIS — The French government is done mincing words. All the diplomatic niceties between two allies in a relationship going back more than two centuries to the very birth of the American republic, one that managed to survive even the turmoil of the Donald Trump presidency, have gone out the window. The United States has stabbed France in the back.
When the Biden administration this week persuaded Australia to enter a deal giving it state-of-the-art nuclear-powered submarines with development help from the United States and Britain, scuppering a 50-year $66 billion contract for diesel-powered subs from France, it was just the final nail in a coffin that Trump began building more than five years ago.
This action is designed to form a bulwark against China in the Pacific but by excluding France, which has its own deep stakes in the region, cuts to the very heart of the NATO alliance and whether the U.S. and Europe itself have a future together — at least one in which America can be relied upon as a constant partner. Above all, it confirms many French (and European) fears that Biden is not a real break from Trump but merely a continuation of many of the American-centric policies that have been gradually isolating the U.S. from many of its longest-standing and most loyal allies.
A close aide to President Emmanuel Macron put it to me this way in a conversation in the Élysée Palace before Biden’s latest move even became known: “I think Europeans were expecting a big shift with Biden coming into office in terms of international relationships. And what we're just experiencing now is a continuum.”
America’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving several French citizens behind, as well as the dragged out efforts to get the United States to return to the Iran nuclear deal, from which France and the other signatories never withdrew, have only intensified this feeling of playing second fiddle, foreign ministry officials have told me.
What was especially irritating — probably too anodyne a term to accurately describe France’s attitude today — to the French was the fact that the entire submarine negotiations were conducted in the deepest secrecy, and Paris was notified only hours before the world learned of the deal.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to put some lipstick on this pig when he told reporters in Washington Thursday, “We cooperate incredibly closely with France on many shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific but also beyond, around the world. We’re going to continue to do so. We place fundamental value on that relationship.” But as he pronounced these soothing phrases, he was flanked by the foreign and defense ministers of Australia. Not a French face in the room, beyond a few astonished reporters.
What irritates French leaders just as much is that Blinken himself was supposed to be a confirmed Francophone and a sharp contrast to predecessor Mike Pompeo. Blinken was raised in Paris and educated at the premier bilingual school in Paris, the École Jeannine Manuel, before heading off to Harvard. Now the growing sense across France is that he has utterly betrayed them.
The French Embassy in Washington, led by the brilliant diplomat Philippe Étienne, put out an impolitic statement in response to the move that evoked memories of the Trump years: “The choice to exclude an ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”
Étienne’s predecessor, Gérard Araud, was blunter: “The world is a jungle. France has just been reminded of this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia.”
France was a key power in Asia coming out of its colonial days and still wants to be seen as a major international player, not just in Europe but globally. But the United States is seeking to restore its own pre-eminence in the east, and the nuclear move sets back French efforts to take a leadership role in opening a constructive, if cautious, relationship with China that would include lucrative trading arrangements and offer a different approach from the hostility that seems to have punctuated the Biden administration’s relations with Beijing.
As such, there were immediate repercussions to the Biden administration’s action. France recalled its ambassador Friday afternoon. Before that, France summarily canceled a gala for Friday night at its sprawling embassy in Washington to commemorate the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes, the most crucial naval battle of the American Revolution.
The longer-range impact could be more pernicious. In September 2017, Macron observed that Europe was “seeing a gradual and inevitable disengagement by the United States, and a long-term terrorist threat with the stated goal of splitting our free societies.” The answer, he suggested, was simple: “In the area of defense, our aim needs to be ensuring Europe’s autonomous operating capabilities” — its own joint military force, independent of the U.S. This enraged Trump, but today the Biden administration seems to be doing little to improve matters, or make moves toward such a European system less likely.
Moreover, the ostensible reason for the new American nuclear contract was to send a strong message to China during a time of increasingly tense relations. But the move undermined the unified Western front that is as important as any weapon in keeping the threat of China at bay.
And Asia isn’t the only geopolitical battlefield where the U.S. needs strong allies. As the U.S. shocked France by its Australian deal, Macron himself proudly announced that French military forces had killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, leader of the Islamic State group in the Greater Sahara, who was responsible for the death of four American soldiers in Niger in 2017.
One French diplomat put it to me quite succinctly: “This is how you thank us?”