ROME — President Biden sought to smooth over relations with America’s oldest ally on Friday, acknowledging that the U.S. had been “clumsy” in its handling of a weapons agreement that led France to lose a multibillion-dollar contract and has fueled French anger for weeks.
Biden suggested that he had not realized the French would be blindsided by America’s agreement to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, a move that cost France a lucrative contract to provide its own submarines to Australia. “I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not coming through,” Biden said.
That effort at relationship repair capped a hectic day in Rome for Biden, who traveled across the ancient city via an 85-vehicle motorcade, calling on various top officials here ahead of Saturday’s meeting of the Group of 20 major economic powers.
A highlight for Biden was a 90-minute audience with Pope Francis, who, Biden told reporters, told him he’s “a good Catholic” and affirmed that he should be allowed to receive Communion. Conservative bishops in the United States have said the president’s support for abortion rights should disqualify him from accepting the sacrament.
The president is hoping to use his second trip abroad to reassert American leadership on the global stage, while showing a domestic audience that international cooperation can lead to concrete benefits like defeating the coronavirus and curtailing greenhouse emissions.
The G-20 meeting, which will be immediately followed by a climate summit in Glasgow expected to draw more than 100 world leaders, will provide time for Biden to establish a personal rapport with foreign allies, many of whom he has not yet met face-to-face amid changing regimes and pandemic restrictions. European partners in particular have been shaken by Biden’s early moves, including a messy Afghan withdrawal, an extension of Trump-era tariffs and the delayed lifting of a coronavirus-related travel ban.
The summits this weekend and next week are notable in part for their absences: Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are not coming in person, so Biden will not have a chance to engage directly with either adversary.
A central element of Biden’s foreign policy has been an effort to shift the focus of the Western alliance toward confronting China, and a senior administration official said Biden and Macron on Friday spent a “fair amount of time talking about the challenge posed by the rise of China.” The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis went on far longer than expected, White House officials said, citing that as evidence that two men have a strong rapport. Both leaders have taken over from conservative leaders and shifted decisively in a liberal direction, leading to hostility from various groups including U.S. bishops.
A senior administration official said Francis urged Biden to help developing countries get coronavirus vaccines and to “accelerate our ambition” on reducing carbon emissions, the main purpose of Biden’s meetings in Glasgow next week.
Biden’s second trip abroad comes as his domestic agenda is in a delicate phase. He delayed his flight to Italy on Thursday to plead with fellow Democrats to back a deal that would deliver on promises to mitigate climate change, shore up the social safety net and rebuild roads and bridges.
Biden hopes to use climate and tax measures in the deal, which remained in limbo Friday, as a catalyst to spur broad international agreements. While Biden’s domestic challenges could play into his effectiveness as a global leader, his success or failure abroad — particularly at next week’s climate summit — could, in turn, resonate at home.
Biden, who rarely attends more than one public event a day, spent Friday driving through Rome’s narrow, winding streets, moving from one Italian palace to the next. Meetings included separate talks with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
But the most anticipated meeting was the conciliatory talk with Macron. Biden was technically on French territory as he met with Macron at the French Embassy to the Holy See, a carefully choreographed move intended to elevate their meeting beyond a typical bilateral conversation.
When the Biden administration in September agreed to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, that effectively overrode an earlier deal for Canberra to buy $66 billion worth of diesel-powered submarines from France.
Macron’s government said at the time that the unexpected move raised fundamental questions about the future of transatlantic security cooperation, and France briefly recalled its ambassador from Washington.
Two subsequent phone calls between Macron and Biden appeared to calm tensions, and French officials have taken a more restrained tone since. But the French presidential office has continued to emphasize that it expects concrete steps to rebuild trust between France and the United States.
Macron met Biden at the steps of the Villa Bonaparte, a grand, three-story, pale yellow mansion tucked within a walled compound in the heart of Rome.
The pair went inside the building and briefly allowed reporters to listen to remarks. Biden heaped praise on France, saying that “we have no older” ally and that the country is an “incredible, valued partner” of the United States.
Macron suggested that the relationship had improved. “We clarified together what we had to clarify,” Macron said as reporters were ushered out. “Now what’s important is to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future.”
Several hours after the meeting, the two leaders released a three-page statement that outlined broad areas of agreement, including a U.S. recognition of “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense.” Macron has been eager to bolster a European defense system that would not be as dependent on the United States.
French officials in recent weeks have voiced frustration with Australia and Britain as well, since Britain was included in the submarine deal that angered the French.
After a phone call Thursday between Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the Élysée Palace released a statement saying that the derailment of the submarine deal “broke the relationship of trust between our two countries.”
“It is now up to the Australian Government to propose tangible actions that embody the political will of Australia’s highest authorities to redefine the basis of our bilateral relationship,” the statement from the French presidential palace added.
Friday’s Biden-Macron meeting came less than six months before presidential elections in France that are increasingly unpredictable. The rise of potential far-right candidate Éric Zemmour has upended calculations within Macron campaign headquarters, as some polls now show him effectively tied with longtime far-right leader Marine Le Pen behind Macron.
A major theme of the campaign message from both Le Pen and Zemmour has been the ostensible decline of the French nation under Macron and some of his predecessors.
In a speech last week, Zemmour suggested that France needed to escape “the shadow” of big powers, namely the United States. He cited the derailed Australian-French submarine deal as evidence of the flawed transatlantic relationship, and he blasted the European Union’s diplomacy as “at best condemned to paralysis, at worst to submission to the United States.”
Zemmour’s U.S. skepticism is falling on fertile ground in France. A Pew Research Center survey this year found that only 31 percent of French respondents said the United States reliably considers the interests of countries like theirs in its international policy decisions.
Macron has sought to balance French skepticism of the United States with the country’s reliance on Washington. In a speech last month, he urged Europeans to “come out of their naivete” on the world stage and assert their independence from the United States.
But in the same speech, Macron acknowledged the United States as “a great historical ally and an ally in terms of values. And that will remain the case.”
Macron’s balancing act may be a reflection of France’s capabilities as a military power that remains a leading force in some ways, including in West Africa, but relies heavily on alliances on other fronts.
Within Europe, France’s security strategy is largely based on its alliances within NATO and the E.U., alliances that have long depended on the United States.
Now France is among several European countries pushing for the continent to pursue “strategic autonomy” from the United States, both out of a fear that a Trump-like leader might return to power, and an anxiety that even traditional American figures like Biden have become more inward-looking.