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Politics

“Crisis of Trust”: France Bristles at US Submarine Deal

September 21, 2021

UNITED NATIONS — France's top diplomat declared Monday that there is a "crisis of trust" in the United States after a Pacific defense deal stung France and left Europe wondering about its longtime ally across the Atlantic.

France canceled meetings with British and Australian officials and worked to rally EU allies behind its push for more European sovereignty after being humiliated by a major Pacific defense pact orchestrated by the U.S. Speaking to reporters in New York, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said European countries won't let Washington leave them behind when shaping its foreign policy,

Le Drian reiterated complaints that his country was sandbagged by the submarine deal between the U.S., Britain and Australia, which led to France losing a contract to sell subs to Australia. Washington, London and Canberra say the deal bolsters their commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, and it has widely been seen as an effort to counter an increasingly assertive China.

But Le Drian, who is in New York to represent France at the U.N. General Assembly, said it was a "brutal, unexpected and unexplained breach" of a contract – and a relationship.

The U.S., Australia and Britain insisted that the diplomatic crisis wouldn't affect their longer-term relations with France, even after Paris recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia for the first time in history because of the deal.

"There is a crisis of trust beyond the fact that the contract is being broken, as if Europe itself didn't have any interest to defend in that region," Le Drian said. 

Arguing that the U.S. is "refocusing its fundamental interests, step by step, with de facto confrontation with China," Le Drian noted pointedly that "Europeans too have their own fundamental interests."

"The Europeans' fundamental interests need to be taken into account by the United States. which is our ally. And the Europeans shall not be left behind in the strategy chosen by the United States," he said. 

He said European countries need to "put together their own priorities and strategy" and discuss it with the U.S. 

Le Drian was meeting with foreign ministers from the other 26 European Union nations to discuss the consequences of the submarine deal and France's vision for a more strategically independent Europe.

European foreign ministers expressed solidarity with France after discussing the matter at a meeting Monday night, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said.

"This announcement runs counter to calls for greater cooperation with the European Union," Borrell said after the meeting in New York. He said he met earlier in the day with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and stressed "that the current challenges to stability in the region called for more cooperation and coordination among like-minded partners" and "less confrontation."

Earlier Monday, France won support from the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who told CNN that "one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. … We want to know what happened and why."

While U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting the Australian and British leaders this week, he won't see French President Emmanuel Macron, who's not traveling to the U.N. 

Instead, Biden plans a call with Macron in the coming days, where he will underscore the U.S. commitment to its alliance with France and lay out specific measures the two nations can take together in the Indo-Pacific, according to a senior U.S. administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning for the leaders' call. The official said while the administration understands the French position on the issue, it did not "share their view in terms of how this all developed."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a disagreement about "a single decision" would not disrupt a relationship or harm the United States' standing across Europe. 

The submarine deal, known as AUKUS, will see Australia cancel a contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and instead acquire nuclear-powered vessels from the U.S. 

The French government appears to have been blindsided by the agreement, and feels its own strategic interests in the Pacific — thanks to its territories and military presence there — were ignored by major allies.

Le Drian said he canceled a meeting with his Australian counterpart in New York and has no meeting scheduled with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while he's at the U.N., but might "pass him in the hallways."

Meanwhile France's defense minister canceled a meeting with her British counterpart this week.

Still, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that Britain's relationship with France is "ineradicable." Speaking on his way to New York, he said, "AUKUS is not in any way meant to be zero-sum, it's not meant to be exclusionary. It's not something that anybody needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends." 

British officials have stressed the close military ties between the U.K. and France, including joint operations in Mali and Estonia.

In Australia, officials said France's anger wouldn't derail negotiations on an Australia-European Union free trade deal.

French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault denied media reports that France was lobbying the EU not to sign the trade deal with Australia that has been under negotiation since 2018.

Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said he would travel to Paris within weeks for trade negotiations and was "very keen to touch base with my French counterpart." 

"I see no reason why those discussions won't continue," Tehan said.

The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, said Monday they're analyzing the impact of the Australian submarine agreement.

Australia argues that the submarine deal was about protecting its strategic interests amid broad concern about China's growing assertiveness.

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