France Furious with U.S. Over ‘Regretful’ Partnership with Australia

France has reacted with outrage to news that the United States and Britain would help Australia develop submarines, and that Australia would withdraw from a $66 billion 2016 deal to buy French-built submarines. At its heart, the diplomatic storm is also a business matter — a loss of revenue for France’s military industry, and a gain for American companies.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, told Franceinfo radio that the submarine deal was a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision” by the United States, and he compared the American move to the rash and sudden policy shifts common during the Trump administration.

“This looks like a new geopolitical order without binding alliances,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. “To confront China, the United States appears to have chosen a different alliance, with the Anglo-Saxon world separate from France.” She predicted a “very hard” period in the old friendship between Paris and Washington.

France canceled a gala scheduled for Friday at its embassy in Washington to mark the 240th anniversary of a Revolutionary War battle.

The deal also seemed to be a pivot point in relations with China, which reacted angrily. The Biden administration appears to be upping the ante with Beijing by providing a Pacific ally with submarines that are much harder to detect than conventional ones, much as medium-range Pershing II missiles were deployed in Europe in the 1980s to deter the Soviet Union.

During a press conference with Australian counterparts, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called France “a vital partner” and welcomes European countries to continue to play a role in the region.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin said that while Aukus is “not aimed” at anyone specific, it will create an “integrated deterrence in the region” to allow the U.S. military to more effectively work with its allies in their shared security interests in the Indo-Pacific.

A statement from Mr. Le Drian and Florence Parly, France’s Armed Forces minister, called “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France” a regrettable decision that “shows a lack of coherence.”

“The American choice which leads to the removal of an ally and a European partner like France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values ​​or on respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law marks an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret,” the statement said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in a press briefing Thursday that the U.S. values its relationship and “long-standing partnership” with France.

“We don’t see this from our end as a regional divide,” she said.

During a press briefing with Australian counterparts, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called France “a vital partner on this and other things.”

“We strongly welcome European countries to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific,” he said, expressing interest to cooperate with NATO and the EU.

Blinken noted that the U.S. discussed the AUKUS partnership with France before and after it was announced.

The Australian vessels would have nuclear reactors for propulsion, but not nuclear weapons.

The degree of French anger recalled the acrimonious rift in 2003 between Paris and Washington over the Iraq war and involved language not heard since then.

“This is not done between allies,” Mr. Le Drian said. His comparison of Mr. Biden to Mr. Trump appeared certain to be taken in the White House as a serious insult.

And France said it had not been consulted on the deal. “We heard about it yesterday,” Ms. Parly told RFI radio.

The Biden administration said it had not told French leaders beforehand, because it was clear that they would be unhappy with the deal.

The administration decided that it was up to Australia to choose whether to tell Paris, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the matter publicly. But he allowed that the French had a right to be annoyed, and that the decision was likely to fuel France’s desire for a European Union military capability independent of the United States.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, did not even mention France in the videoconference with Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain during which the deal was announced.

Britain’s partnership with the United States in the deal is another irritant to France, after the British exit from the European Union and Mr. Johnson’s embrace of a “Global Britain” strategy aimed largely at the Indo-Pacific region. Longstanding French suspicion of an Anglophone cabal pursuing its own interests to the exclusion of France is never far beneath the surface.

The deal also challenged President Emmanuel Macron of France on some of his central strategic choices. He is determined that France should not get sucked into the increasingly harsh confrontation between China and the United States.

Rather, Mr. Macron wants France to lead the European Union toward a middle course between the two great powers, demonstrating the “European strategic autonomy” at the core of his vision. He has spoken about an autonomous Europe operating “beside America and China.”

Such comments have been an irritant — if no more than that, given how far Europe stands militarily from such autonomy — to the Biden administration. Mr. Biden is particularly sensitive on the question of American 20th-century sacrifice for France in two world wars and France’s prickliness over its independence within the NATO alliance. Mr. Macron has not visited the White House since Mr. Biden took office, nor is there any sign that he will soon.

The E.U. statement on Indo-Pacific strategy committed European nations to deeper involvement at all levels in the region.

Its wording, combining broad “engagement” with dissent on human rights, broadly reflected Mr. Macron’s quest for a policy that does not risk rupture with China but also avoids bowing to Beijing. France said the strategy confirmed “its desire for very ambitious action in this region aimed at preserving the ‘freedom of sovereignty’ of all.”

The document did not anticipate Australian nuclear submarines, potentially armed with cruise missiles, becoming a potent player in the Pacific in a way that may alter the naval balance of power in an area where China has been extending its influence.

Presenting Europe’s strategy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the E.U. foreign policy chief, said in Brussels that the submarine deal reinforced the bloc’s need for more strategic autonomy.

“I suppose that a deal like that wasn’t cooked the day before yesterday,” Mr. Borrell said. “Despite that, we weren’t informed.” The American-British-Australian agreement, he argued, was more proof that the bloc needs to “exist for ourselves, since the others exist for themselves.”

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