What he called “a new partnership” excluding France, and the resulting cancellation of a $66 billion Australian contract to buy diesel-powered French submarines, “constitute unacceptable behavior among allies and partners,” Le Drian said in a statement.
France also recalled its ambassador to Australia.
In a statement, the White House played down the breach. “We have been in close touch with our French partners. . . . We understand their position and will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement.
“France is our oldest ally and one of our strongest partners, and we share a long history of shared democratic values and a commitment to working together to address global challenges,” Horne said.
But France indicated that things would not be easily mended. The consequences of the U.S. action, Le Drian said, “affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.” He said he had recalled Ambassador Philippe Etienne back to Paris “at the request of President Macron,” effective immediately and lasting indefinitely.
Friday’s actions built on France’s initial expressions of disbelief and anger immediately after the Wednesday announcement of the new agreement by President Biden, flanked on video screens in surprise appearances by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The level of French outrage, and a somewhat dismissive U.S. reaction, were reminiscent of the last major clash between the two. In 2003, France refused to sanction the proposed U.S. invasion of Iraq and pledged to veto an American-sought United Nations Security Council mandate, sparking a wave of anti-France sentiment across the United States.
Republican House members then ordered that “French fries” on the menus of all congressional restaurants be renamed “Freedom fries.” In response, a French Embassy spokesperson noted that fries had originated in Belgium.
But even then, there was no ambassadorial recall, and bilateral comity gradually returned. Although interrupted during the Trump administration — Le Drian said Thursday that the submarine contract betrayal was “what Trump would do” — Biden has spoken of the strength of the U.S.-France alliance. His secretary of state, Antony Blinken, spent his teenage years in Paris, speaks fluent French, and has been a frequent visitor to Paris.
Secret negotiations over a new defense pact — called AUKUS — began early in the summer among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. As described in Wednesday’s announcement, it includes technology transfers and other defense cooperation designed to confront what the West in general has described as an increasingly assertive China.
Its centerpiece is the sale of an unspecified number of nuclear-powered submarines using technology that the United States so far has shared only with Britain. Under the agreement, the AUKUS countries will work over the next 18 months to hash out the details, including the type — either U.S. Virginia class or British Astute class — and the price of the submarines. The nuclear component refers to the power plants on the ships, and not to nuclear weapons.
French officials maintained they were not informed of the negotiations, the agreement or the announcement, saying they first learned about it in media leaks just hours before Biden’s White House appearance.
Morrison, in an Australian radio interview Friday, said that he had warned Macron, during a visit to Paris in June, of problems with the French contract. “I made it very clear . . . about our significant concerns about the capabilities of conventional submarines to deal with the new strategic environment we’re faced with,” he said, and “a matter that Australia would need to make a decision on in our national interest.”
While the cancellation of the Australian contract has major economic implications for France’s defense industry, officials there indicated that the damage done to trust between NATO allies was far greater.
Paris expressed particular scorn toward Britain on Friday, making no mention of an ambassadorial recall or any other action taken toward what one senior French official called Washington’s “junior partner.”
“Through this partnership . . . we see that the ‘global Britain’ strategy is apparently more about being a junior associate than working with different allies,” French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune said in an interview with France 24.
Britain’s final departure last year from the European Union, known as Brexit, set off a new round of acrimony in its historically strained ties with France. Johnson has adopted the phrase “global Britain,” first used by his predecessor in office, as a post-Brexit mantra to describe the country’s influence in the world outside the restraints of Europe.
In separate interviews, according to Agence France-Presse, Beaune said that “our British friends explained to us that they were leaving the E.U. to create ‘global Britain.’ We can see that this is a return to the American fold and a form of accepted vassalization.”
France also sees itself as a major foreign policy player, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. But a White House official, in discussing the importance of the region, made no mention of France’s strategy toward it, announced in 2018. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity imposed by the White House.
“We will continue our close cooperation with NATO, the E.U., and other partners in this common endeavor,” the official said. “To that end, we welcome the Indo-Pacific strategy announced [Thursday] by the E.U. and look forward to continuing to work with the E.U. and its member states to advance our shared goals in the Indo-Pacific, including via the U.S.-E.U. Dialogue on China.”
Anne Gearan, John Hudson and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.