US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold potentially sensitive talks in Paris on Tuesday to fix ties with France, which is still angry about the cancellation of a submarine contract.
President Emmanuel Macron was furious last month when Australia scrapped a multi-million dollar deal for French submarines, saying it would seek American nuclear versions.
The Macron government called the secret pre-cancellation talks “a stab in the back” and the French president called his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.
US President Joe Biden, possibly baffled by the extent of Macron’s anger, has since tried to make amends, and Karen Donfried, the undersecretary of state for European Affairs, admitted last week that “the announcement of 15 September would have benefited from a better and more open consultation between allies ”.
Blinken’s scheduled meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian on Tuesday is likely to lack the usual warmth between the two allied governments.
Le Drian, her ministry spokeswoman told reporters, sees the meeting simply as an opportunity to “identify stages that can allow a return of trust between our two countries.”
In one more sign that French anger is still simmering, an official meeting between Macron and Blinken is not scheduled. Instead, the top US diplomat will meet with the French leader’s diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne.
This omission is in stark contrast to the French president’s availability for Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in November last year, when he stopped in Paris to say goodbye.
‘Not just in words’
Blinken’s trip to Paris had been scheduled before the submarine line exploded, and it would focus on a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of mostly wealthy countries.
But now the fallout from the defensive crisis is likely to dominate his two-day stay.
Blinken, who is fluent in French and spent part of his childhood in Paris, will need all of his knowledge of France and his diplomatic acumen to reassure his hosts about the durability of the association with Washington’s oldest ally.
Donfried, echoing France’s earlier assessment, said the US acknowledged that repairing ties “will take time and hard work and will need to be demonstrated not only in words but also in deeds.”
France may have started to soften its stance after Biden spoke on the phone with Macron, who then sent his ambassador back to Washington, where he met with Blinken and also Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.
Meanwhile, Macron remains furious with Australia, and a long-planned round of Australia-EU free trade talks has been postponed for a month.
Canberra announced the submarine’s decision by joining a new alliance with Britain and the United States, dubbed AUKUS, one of a series of initiatives by Biden, who sees countering China as America’s top concern.
US officials said Blinken would speak to France, which has a presence in the Indo-Pacific region through several overseas territories, about the Asia strategy.
“AUKUS is not intended to replace existing agreements or existing partnerships,” Donfried said. “On the contrary, we welcome the opportunity to discuss how to include the EU and other partners in our initiatives,” he said.
While in Paris, Blinken will also co-chair a ministerial meeting for the 60th anniversary of the Paris-based OECD.
The meeting will seek to promote a green economy, one month before the UN climate negotiations in Glasgow.