Macron recalled Ambassador Philippe Etienne to Paris last week, after an announcement that the United States had formed an alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom that allows Australia to purchase U.S. nuclear submarine technology. That deal effectively canceled an arrangement under which Australia had been set to purchase less capable French vessels and prompted public outrage from French officials.
The joint statement following Wednesday’s call suggested regret by the White House over the way the episode unfolded.
“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,” the statement said.
“President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard.”
Macron had been said to want an apology from Biden, but the statement stopped short of saying there had been one. It said the two leaders agreed to “open a process of in-depth consultations,” but it was not precise about what that means.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the tone of the approximately 30-minute call “friendly” and forward-looking. She skirted questions about whether Biden had apologized or feels at fault.
“He acknowledged that there could have been greater consultations,” she said.
In Paris, an Élysée official said ahead of the call Wednesday that Macron and Biden would address “the crisis of confidence which led to the recall of our ambassador, and to take stock of the modalities of a re-engagement.”
The conversation took place as Biden was also convening a virtual summit on the global coronavirus pandemic at the White House on Wednesday. Macron was not among the leaders participating in the opening session.
The White House has said that Biden requested a conversation to ease tension caused by the announcement a week ago of the deal with Australia and Britain.
French officials have said the contract is a blow, but that the larger issue is what French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called “deceit” by a strong ally.
Speaking to reporters at the United Nations on Monday, Le Drian said the United States went behind France’s back and hid the arrangement for months.
The Élysée official said Macron expects “clarifications regarding the American choice to keep a European ally away” from the conversations.
“We expect our allies to recognize that the exchanges and consultations that should have taken place were not conducted and that this raises a question of confidence,” the official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, added that Macron expects a commitment to restoring confidence “through concrete measures, and not just through words.”
“This concerns in particular: the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific; the full recognition by our American allies of the need to strengthen European sovereignty as well as of the importance of the growing commitment of Europeans to their defense and security; the joint commitment to the fight against terrorism,” the official said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson downplayed the offense, telling France on Wednesday in both French and English to “get a grip.”
Speaking to Sky News in Washington, he said: “I just think it’s time for some of our dearest friends around the world to ‘prenez un grip’ [get a grip] about all this, ‘donnez-moi un break’ [give me a break], because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security.”
He added: “It is not trying to shoulder anybody out, it is not adversarial towards China, for instance, it is there to intensify links and friendship between three countries.”
Thierry Breton, a close ally of the French president who has served as European commissioner for internal market since 2019 after being nominated by Macron, used a trip to Washington this week to excoriate the Biden administration.
“We should be frank and honest,” Breton said during an interview Monday. “I regret it, but there is a growing feeling that something is broken in European and U.S. relations . . . It didn’t start because of this story of last week in Australia. It was much before.”
Breton said that while much of the problem stemmed from “the previous administration” in the United States, many in Europe were disappointed by the way the Biden administration had behaved since.
“The way it has been handled in Afghanistan has been very painful, not just for the people on the ground, but the member states and our allies. Of course, alliances are made of trust. There’s this feeling that trust is not a given and something has been broken.”
Breton also said that while he praised the lifting of U.S. travel restrictions that had effectively blocked access to the United States for most Europeans, the issue had caused frustration in Europe.
“Just based on science, on fact, we are the number one continent [in vaccinations per capita]. Better than everyone else,” he said. “And you put us on the list with Iran, China, Brazil — is there a rationale behind it?
“There is an increasing feeling within E.U. member states that we may need to pause, reassess everything before announcing a new approach because for the last few months it has been very painful for our partnership and alliance,” Breton added.
The European commissioner, who was visiting the U.S. capital for a joint meeting with the White House coronavirus task force on supply chains, said that Europe would continue to work with the United States on large issues such as the coronavirus and climate change, but that other areas may need to be reassessed.
“There is a feeling that after Afghanistan, we need to take more and more of our defense into our hands. A lot of countries are saying this,” Breton said.
U.S. officials hope Biden’s phone call with the French leader will be a starting point toward improving relations with the European Union leadership as well, which had expressed unease about the West’s English-speaking powers’ lack of coordination with Paris, Berlin and Brussels.
Ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s top foreign policy envoy, sounded a positive note. “I am sure that we are going to talk about the recent issues in which we can build a stronger confidence among us following the conversation that had been taking place this morning between President Biden and President Macron,” he said in a Palace Hotel meeting room. “I’m sure we’ll be working together.”
Blinken, speaking through a mask, said it was a “real pleasure to be able to spend some time with my good friend.”
At the United Nations, a planned meeting among European nations and Blinken was canceled. It had been viewed as the first opportunity for Blinken and Le Drian to meet each other this week.
The United States blamed scheduling issues, but Le Drian had already told reporters he had no plans to see Blinken.
Noack reported from Paris. Hudson reported from New York. Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.