A file photo of US President Joe Biden with French President Emmanuel Macron during a bilateral meeting in Carbis Bay, England (Photo: AP)

Biden, Macron speak in effort to ease diplomatic spat

President Biden and France’s President Emmanuel Macron, speaking for the first time since a diplomatic spat arose over a deal by the U.S. and United Kingdom to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, vowed to seek ways to patch up an alliance that is part of American efforts to counter China’s influence in the Pacific.

In a joint statement from the U.S. and France, both sides acknowledged the situation would have benefited from better communication. Mr. Biden also reaffirmed a commitment to discuss matters of strategic interest to France and European partners, it said. Mr. Macron said his ambassador, Philippe Etienne, would return to Washington next week, the joint statement said.

France had previously contracted with Australia to supply it with conventional submarines, but Australia opted in favor of the more advanced version being offered by the U.S. and U.K. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was acting in Australia’s best interest.

French officials have publicly claimed they were given no prior warning of the security pact before it was announced. The U.S. said France received advance notice, while British officials said it was up to the Australians to give notice.

At the same time, the U.S., Australia and the U.K. announced a new defense pact with plans to share cutting-edge defense technology. As a major naval player in the Indo-Pacific, French officials have lambasted Washington for excluding them from the agreement.

The disagreement prompted France to recall its ambassador to Washington for consultation. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian chastised the countries for what he called a “stab in the back” by two allies.

The diplomatic rupture with France is the latest challenge to a U.S. administration seeking to maintain unity among its allies and allay doubts about its resolve to tackle global challenges together. The recent abrupt U.S. exit from Afghanistan caught some European officials off guard, adding to tensions with the continent.

Other leaders have pressed the two allies to end the rift and move forward. On Wednesday, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called on allies not to deepen rifts among western countries, although she didn’t specifically mention France.

“I think it’s important to say—given the talks going on in Europe right now—that I see Biden as very loyal to the trans-Atlantic alliance,” she said in an interview with Danish daily Politiken from New York. “And in general, we should not turn concrete challenges, which will always exist between allies, into something they should not be. I would very much warn against this,” she added.

During a visit to Washington this week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also without mentioning France specifically, suggested that “some of our dearest friends in the world…donnez-moi un break”—“give me a break” in a mix of French and English.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and French officials have been trying to arrest the downward diplomatic spiral. Since Mr. Etienne was recalled for consultations last week, U.S. officials have been trying to understand France’s frustrations and the nature of their previous agreement with Australia, a U.S. official said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a francophone, has been in touch with French and British counterparts to ease tensions and find a path forward.

France and the U.S. continue to work closely together on a range of areas, from counterterrorism to climate change.

France has sought a U.S. commitment to support French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific and backing for European efforts to increase their defense autonomy and sovereignty.

France has been leading a push in Europe to increase the region’s common defense and security capabilities to play a more independent role in the region and beyond.

That push has encountered resistance from some European countries, who are concerned it could erode U.S. commitments to NATO and divert European defense spending away from the alliance.

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