The saga erupted last week after Australia announced it would withdraw from a multi-billion dollar defense deal to acquire conventional submarines from France and work instead with the US and United Kingdom to obtain nuclear-powered ones. And while Biden called the deal an investment in American alliances, the strategic move to bolster Australia’s military and counter China’s strengthening grip in the Pacific is said to have infuriated Macron.
On Wednesday, Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director of France’s leading daily newspaper, Le Monde, wrote in The New York Times: “Make no mistake. This is a crisis, not a spat….French officials say they have been stonewalled and duped by close allies, who negotiated behind their backs.” The atmosphere is one in which the “sense of betrayal,” as she described it, is “acute.”
Hours later, Macron and Biden released a joint statement that read, “The two leaders agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners.” Macron, who recalled the nation’s ambassador to the US for the first time in history, announced in the joint statement that ambassador Philippe Etienne would return to Washington next week.
Was the week-long crisis really resolved, with the only concrete consequence that Etienne racked up 7,500 frequent flyer miles in the process?
Not exactly. Two days after the Biden-Macron conversation, France’s powerful Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, called America’s behavior “brutal” and noted its focus on China, saying, “In this strategic analysis, Europe counts less and less.”
It’s clear Biden believes the US needs more allies to counter China. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was formed in part to deter the Soviet Union, has safeguarded the peace and security of America, Europe and much of the Western world for the last 70 years. But now that the US is locked in a competition with a new global power, Biden is venturing beyond NATO to cozy up to Australia — believing that this will more effectively protect US interests against China.
That is the underlying rationale for throwing France under the bus: It seems the US believes neither France nor Europe has the will or ability to take on China.
Indeed, Macron said earlier this year that the EU shouldn’t gang up on China by taking sides with the US — a scenario he called “counterproductive.” Instead, he suggested walking a tightrope with China, viewing it as both a partner and competitor.
Just last week, the European Parliament voted on a new strategic outlook on China — one that mirrors Macron’s approach. The EU proposed strengthening ties to the major Asian democracies of India, Japan and South Korea as well as Taiwan, while cooperating with China when it comes to trading arrangements and climate change.
Biden, on the other hand, has chosen to amp up Australia’s military might before giving diplomatic talks with China a chance to succeed. Let’s not forget the angry confrontation between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart in March — with each side accusing the other of gross human rights violations in a scene that was all too reminiscent of the Donald Trump era.
Despite these differences over China, however, it’s critical that Biden bolster America’s relationships with all its allies instead of alienating one in favor of another.
So far, based on their more conciliatory Wednesday encounter, it might appear as if Macron has rolled over and accepted Biden’s hardline position on China. It may well be that Macron, who is as shrewd as any leader in Europe, is angling for more power in the EU, which would allow him to foster a different relationship with China instead of following the US.
Germany is currently squabbling over who will succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If Macron can win a second presidential term in April, becoming the first French leader to do so since Jacques Chirac’s reelection in 2002, he could emerge as the de facto leader of the EU. This would place him in a far stronger position to lead the continent away from America’s more confrontational attitude towards China in favor of a more balanced and pragmatic approach. In other words, he may be strategically retreating on the submarine crisis in view of the long game.
One senior aide to Macron pointed out to me that the situation of his predecessor, François Hollande, has not been lost on the French president. It was, after all, President Barack Obama’s decision in 2013 not to retaliate against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for unleashing chemical weapons on his own people that left Hollande twisting in the wind. Biden was, of course, vice president at the time and stood by as Hollande was forced to accept the sudden reversal of the American decision, which he had wholeheartedly embraced. Hollande was torn apart in France for the embarrassing retreat.
After watching Hollande get burned, Macron is hellbent on avoiding the same mistake, especially now that he’s launched his reelection campaign. While Hollande refrained from confronting the US, Macron has let his displeasure be known. As one foreign ministry official suggested to me, Macron has shown he has a spine.
But there are already a number of challengers who are slamming Macron and decrying the deep insult the US has inflicted on France and its standing in the world. The popular left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon took to Twitter to denounce Macron for having “capitulated unconditionally” to Biden and humiliating France. On the other end of the spectrum, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen used Twitter to charge that “when it comes to preserving our independence and our pride, with Emmanuel Macron, the worst is always certain.” And at least two French senators have demanded the creation of an investigative commission to look into the debacle.
Macron certainly has a tough task ahead, with political hurdles at home while the rift between the US over China is likely to grow over time.
As for Biden, foreign policy under his administration — in Afghanistan, for example, and now with Australia — has not inspired confidence among many of America’s allies. For too many people in France, the early Biden era seems to be more of a continuum of what they saw under President Donald Trump than any dramatic shift.
For much of this century, France and the US have been drifting apart, beginning with France’s angry rejection of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. This latest imbroglio seems only to be accelerating the drift. As Florence Parly, Minister of the Armed Forces, concluded, America’s “brutal” behavior “is not a surprise, it has been some years since we have noticed this fundamental trend.” It will take some masterly statesmanship by Macron and possibly a resounding second term as French president to reverse what seems to be a deep-seated, historical trend.