France recalls ambassadors to US and Australia for consultations – an unprecedented move taken over a submarine deal.
US President Joe Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron will meet next month as the countries work to repair relations following a diplomatic brouhaha that broke out over a security pact with Australia that scuppered a multi-billion dollar submarine contract.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, France and the United States said the two leaders spoke by phone and agreed to meet in Europe at the end of October.
The French ambassador to the US will also return to Washington next week, the countries said, after Paris recalled its envoy in anger about the surprise partnership between the US, UK and Australia, which included the US helping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. In 2016, Canberra had agreed to buy diesel-powered vessels from France.
“The two leaders have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures toward common objectives,” the statement said.
Amid ongoing attempts to mend the rift, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke together on Wednesday on the margins of a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council, an official told AFP news agency.
“We do expect that they’ll have some time together bilaterally tomorrow as well,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The Biden administration drew the ire of the French government when it announced the new alliance, dubbed AUKUS, on September 15, saying it aimed to improve stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
France recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia in protest, as diplomatic tensions between the allies – key members of the NATO alliance – reached boiling point.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison then announced the country would end the deal to purchase diesel-powered submarines designed by French firm Naval Group, saying conventional submarines have become “unsuited” to the country’s operational needs.
France quickly condemned the trilateral pact, with Le Drian calling Paris’ exclusion from the discussions “brutal, unilateral and unpredictable”.
Top US officials moved to allay the French government’s anger in the following days, and Blinken promised that Washington would cooperate with France and the EU in the Indo-Pacific.
“France, in particular, is a vital partner on this and on so many other things – stretching back a long, long time, but also stretching forward into the future,” Blinken said on September 16.
But France recalled its envoys a day later citing what it called the “exceptional seriousness” of the US and Australian announcements.
Natacha Butler, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Paris, said Wednesday’s phone call signalled that both countries wanted to move forward.
“What is clear is that both Macron and Biden, they know it’s in the common interests of both the US and France to improve the relationship and rebuild some of that trust,” Butler said.
“It doesn’t mean, of course, that the French are not going to remain upset for some while.”
In their joint statement on Wednesday, the countries also said Biden reaffirmed the “strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region” in his call with his French counterpart.
“The two leaders agreed that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” the statement said. “President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the tone between the two leaders was “friendly” during their 30-minute call.
Earlier in the day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged France to move on from the issue, saying “donnez moi un [give me a] break”, in a mix of French and English.
Psaki refused to comment on Johnson’s remark, but noted that the US-French statement “acknowledged that there could have been more discussion” before the trilateral deal was announced.
“That was an important message for him [Biden] to convey during that conversation,” she said.