But France didn’t recall its ambassador to Britain, and officials appeared relatively tight-lipped about London’s role even as they lashed out at Australia’s “treason” and compared the U.S. decision to a Trump-era move against an ally.
“There really is a serious crisis between us,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France’s public broadcaster on Saturday evening.
Observers have struggled to make sense of the light touch with Britain. France’s Le Monde newspaper called the decision to not recall the French ambassador to Britain an “odd exception” on Saturday. Was France trying to spare Britain to save their already strained relations, as some have hypothesized? Or, perhaps, are French diplomats suggesting that Britain is not worth bothering with?
French officials suggested Saturday that the latter hypothesis may come closer to the truth: Britain was seen as a junior partner in the three-nation defense pact. “The U.K. tagged along with this entire operation opportunistically,” said a French diplomatic official. “There’s no need for us to consult with our ambassador in Paris to know what to make of it and what conclusions to draw.”
“We know their permanent opportunism,” said Le Drian on French television, comparing Britain’s role to a “fifth wheel on the wagon.”
French officials had previously implied, at times mockingly, that Britain did not play a leading role.
“Our British friends explained to us that they were leaving the E.U. to create ‘global Britain,’" French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune said before the ambassador recalls were announced.
“We can see that this is a return to the American fold and a form of accepted vassalization,” he said.
The European Union’s own security strategy has long strongly relied on NATO and the United States. But speaking on France’s public broadcaster on Saturday, renowned international relations expert Bertrand Badie said, “We must not forget that what lit the fire is an American-Australian agreement that replaces a Franco-Australian agreement.”
“Great Britain intervened only in a secondary way” and carries “less responsibility,” he said.
Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council, told The Washington Post that France pulled a “cheeky move” — dismissing Britain as not a “front-row player in this story.”
Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Post that the French government purporting to “snub” Britain might merely be spin.
It’s much more difficult for France to stir up a spat between nearby Britain than with Australia or even the United States, he said. “It’s much less damaging to day-to-day interests. You don’t have the same volume of practical things to manage on a daily basis,” he said.
“It’s just a much thicker relationship than the relationship between Paris and Washington,” he said. “Britain and France are sort of joined at the hip in a way that France isn’t joined to the U.S.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promoted Britain’s departure from the European Union as an opportunity for the country to strike more international trade and strategy deals, unrestrained from the European Union. But the departure from the European Union has severely affected relations between some of its member states and Britain, with British and French interests clashing on a number of fronts.
The submarine snub “is a symptom of a toxic turn British-French relations have taken in the last few years,” Leonard said.
Still, the deepening of the bad blood is disappointing to some, especially at a time when there was positive momentum in the relationship: Britain and France had both worked alongside other allies including the United States on military exercises earlier this year. They had announced a joint proposal for a ‘safe zone’ in Kabul to create a passage for people trying to leave Afghanistan, too.
“The nations have a lot of common, especially on issues of defense, Haddad said.
“They are the two key European military actors,” he said, “so if you want to build a form of European strategic culture, you have to do it between Paris and London.
Johnson played down any acrimony.
“Our relationship with France, our military relationship with France … is rock solid,” the prime minister said Thursday.