PARIS (AP) – The biggest rift in decades between the United States and France appeared to be healing on Wednesday after French President Emmanuel Macron and President Joe Biden phoned each other on Wednesday to iron out matters.
In a half-hour call that the White House called “friendly,” the two leaders agreed to meet next month to discuss the way forward after the French clashed fiercely when the United States, Australia and Britain last announced a new Indo-Pacific defense deal. week that cost the French a multibillion-dollar contract for submarines. France has also agreed to return its ambassador to Washington.
The White House was keen to release a photograph of Biden smiling during his call with Macron.
In a carefully drafted joint statement, the two governments said Biden and Macron “have decided to open a process of extensive consultations, aimed at creating the conditions to ensure confidence.”
So did Biden apologize?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly dodged the question, allowing Biden to admit “there could have been more consultation.”
“The president hopes that this is a step towards the return to normalcy in a long, important and lasting relationship that the United States has with France,” she said.
The call suggested a cooling of spirits after days of Paris outrage against the Biden administration.
In an unprecedented move, France recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia last week to protest what the French called a stab in the back by allies. As part of the defense pact, Australia will cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy French diesel-electric submarines and instead acquire US nuclear-powered ships.
It was clear that there was still some repair work to be done.
The joint statement said the French ambassador “will have intensive work with senior American officials” upon his return to the United States.
Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefited from open consultations between allies on issues of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” the statement said.
Biden reaffirmed in the press release “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on a visit to Washington, was quick to suggest it was time for France to overcome its anger over the submarine deal, saying officials French should “take control”. Using both French and English words, he added that they should give him a “break”.
Johnson said the deal was “fundamentally a big step forward for global security. These are three like-minded allies standing side by side, creating a new partnership for sharing technology. “
“It’s not exclusive. He doesn’t try to support anyone. It is not contradictory with China, for example.
Psaki declined to comment on whether Johnson’s comments were constructive at a time when the United States was trying to restore relations with France.
The European Union last week unveiled its own new strategy to strengthen economic, political and defense ties in the vast area stretching from India and China to Japan through Southeast Asia and east beyond New Zealand to the Pacific.
The United States “also recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, which positively contributes to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO,” the statement said.
No decision has been taken on the French ambassador to Australia, the Elysee said, adding that no phone call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was planned.
Earlier Wednesday, Macron’s office said the French president was awaiting “clarifications and clear commitments” from Biden, who requested the appeal.
French officials described last week’s US-UK-Australia announcement as creating a “crisis of confidence”, with Macron only being formally warned a few hours in advance. This decision had aroused fury in Paris, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “stab in the back”.
France’s partners in the European Union agreed on Tuesday to put the dispute at the top of the bloc’s political agenda, including at an EU summit next month.
Following the Macron-Biden call, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in New York as the administration scrambled to repair the damage caused to the broader relations between the EU and the United States by the agreement.
Blinken spoke of the need for transatlantic cooperation on many issues “quite literally around the world, including of course Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific and Europe and beyond”.
Borrell, taking note of the phone call, said he hoped he could “build stronger trust between us as a result of the conversation that took place this morning between President Biden and President Macron. I am sure we will work together.
The French presidency has categorically denied a report by the British Daily Telegraph published on Wednesday claiming that Macron could offer the country’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council to the European Union if the bloc backs its EU defense plans .
Psaki echoed Johnson’s point that the creation of the new security alliance – which has been dubbed AUKUS – was not meant to freeze other allies in the Indo-Pacific strategy.
“During the conversation, the president reaffirmed the strategic importance of France – the French and European nations should I say – in the Indo-Pacific region,” Psaki said.
The deal was widely seen as part of US efforts to counter a more assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Associated Press editors Jill Lawless in London, Matthew Lee in New York and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed reporting.