You can understand the anger of the French. The government in Paris had been negotiating with Australia to sell submarines for years – and then the Americans came and snatched the deal. France is not only missing out on a billions in arms deals. France was also betrayed and humiliated. From the indignant statements of French politicians – “stab in the back” – anger speaks of a considerable financial loss. Most of all, they speak of hurt pride.
That is why President Emmanuel Macron called the French ambassadors from the USA and Australia to Paris for consultations on Friday. A stronger diplomatic protest is hardly possible among friendly countries. France has been deeply hit, and Macron’s clear intention is to make Washington feel his bitterness clearly and in front of the world. (The fact that he will soon be up for re-election and that it will go down well with the patriotic citizens when he reads the riot act to the arrogant Americans may be a second motive for Macron.)
As I said, you can understand that. On the one hand.
On the other hand: Doesn’t anyone in Europe really listen when the American president makes speeches on foreign policy? This question arose when the Europeans complained a few weeks ago about the supposedly surprising withdrawal of the Americans from Afghanistan. Yes, the circumstances under which the last US soldiers left Kabul were chaotic and tragic. But that America would end its war in Afghanistan and bring all GIs home, President Joe Biden had announced months ago – several times and with a withdrawal date. In any case, the Taliban knew very well, they were not surprised.
The situation is similar now. Since taking office, Biden has made half a dozen speeches that, in his view, dictatorial China is the greatest and most dangerous rival of the United States and the entire democratic west. And that he intends to enter into economic, military and ideological competition with Beijing for hegemony in the Pacific region and in the world. That Australia would be an important ally for Washington – and, at least with a view to this region of the world, a more important one than France – could also have occurred to Paris. Also on the fact that Australia would rather choose America than France if it had to decide on a protecting power in the new Cold War between China and the USA.
The submarines are the dowry that seals this Australian-American pact. But the strategic implications are far greater. And they were open to anyone who wanted to see them. Perhaps Macron should have thought of this when, shortly before Biden’s assumption of office – and to his irritation – he quickly pushed through a new investment agreement between the EU and China together with Germany. Or when he publicly warned Europeans not to join forces with the United States against Beijing. From the American perspective, this did not exactly make France a reliable partner in the conflict that Biden believes will dominate for the next few decades.
In Washington, France’s anger is seen with what the White House calls “regret”, but also with a certain indifference, if not with malice. The idea that France or even the Europeans seriously want to claim to be an Indo-Pacific power, on an equal footing with America and China, amuses many observers in the USA rather than inspires respect. You may find that arrogant, but that’s how it is.
Even so, the diplomatic damage remains, which is considerable. France has recalled its ambassador from Washington – an unprecedented step in the history of these two old allies. This is of no use to anyone, least of all Biden, who knows America needs allies, even if he doesn’t always act like that. It would do well for the US President to show a little contrition to restore France’s pride.