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NATO divided as France-US row escalates

Roar writer Chloe Ferreux on the diplomatic row between the United States and its oldest ally, France, and how it may have be detrimental for the fight against growing Chinese influence

French-American relations were at breaking point last week. On September 17th, France recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia, triggering a diplomatic crisis.

The story began two days earlier when the new Aukus, or trilateral Indo-Pacific, military pact between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom was announced. The deal was part of US President Joe Biden’s broader effort to combat China’s growing geopolitical power. However, as important as the deal is, it invalidated a contract France had signed with Canberra in 2016. Referred to as the “contract of the century”, the agreement promised the delivery of twelve conventionally-powered submarines to Australia for $90 billion.

However, it was effectively made null last week by the new trilateral Indo-Pacific security pact. Thus, Washington, London and Canberra turned the end of the ‘deal of the century’ into a bad dream for the French. The US wanted to foster a trilateral Indo-Pacific security alliance in order to focus on its rivalry with China at the detriment of the French situation.

Yet, even more than Australia, it is the United States that France seems to blame the most. It is a true breach of trust. The Americans’ behaviour is seen in Paris as neglectful and brutal.

France unhinged

“Would it be better to have a brutal, but forthright adversary? Or a friend who, with a Colgate smile on his face, stabs you in the back?” asks L’OBS, a French weekly news magazine that is attacking President Biden. Although the sentence is exaggerated, the reality is not that far off. Since Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, he has never stopped praising the solidity of transatlantic relations, in stark contrast to his predecessor. Although today, these have proven to be empty words.

The Naval Group, the French company in charge of the construction of the twelve submarines, unsurprisingly expressed its “great disappointment” in a public statement. The Quai d’Orsay, the key house of international relations in France, was less parsimonious. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the head of French diplomacy, expressed his anger during the morning show on FranceInfo, the French public information radio. Condemning a “regrettable decision”, he denounced the “unlilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision which resembles very much what Donald Trump used to do”. Since September 15th, France has not lacked words to express its deep bitterness towards the Aukus pact.

A hit to French ego

The end of this contract also symbolizes the fact that France has a decreasing importance on the world stage. Indeed, in the face of this new geopolitical conflict, Paris finds itself mostly on the sidelines. But the US-UK-Australian alliance was not built in a day and Washington was aware of the agreement between Paris and Canberra. However, the US has not hesitated for a second to oust France and has been doing so for several months. Yet, France, more than ever, wishes to establish itself as a real spokesperson for the European Union in international relations.

It is therefore a real cold shower for the French President and for Europe not to have been included in such an important contract. Providing the Australians with nuclear weapons is not a trivial matter on the part of the United States. French government officials have rarely been so violent in their statements against an ally. This raises many questions about future Franco-American relations.

However, the choice to abandon France also shows its weakness in combining diplomacy and economics. The French government has been trying to implement an Indo-Pacific strategy for over ten years. However, the Biden administration has managed, in a few months, to destroy a plan that was established over the last few years.

Consequences are coming

Although this misunderstanding may make you smile at first sight, it is becoming more and more serious. For six months now, the irritation towards Washington has been accumulating. Between the absence of real consultation before the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the ban on entry to the US for Europeans, and finally the sabotage of the “contract of the century” between Australia and France, Paris is no longer hiding its anger.

At this time of the year, French and American officials usually meet to to commemorate a naval battle won in 1840 by the French against the British navy during the American War of Independence. However, France’s bad temper took care to bury the memories of friendship. The evening was cancelled.

Later in the week, to get the message across, Emmanuel Macron decided to hit back even harder. The French ambassadors in Australia and in the United States were soon recalled. A bold decision which will be remembered as something that has never happened before. Hervé Lemahieu of the Lowy Institute for Foreign Policy believes it will take “years” to repair the damage of the submarine crisis, and that “distrust” of Paris will be tenacious.

The United States surprised by a wounded Paris 

Apparently surprised by recent events, the United States is trying to restore dialogue between the two countries. In the face of the catastrophic downturn in the Franco-American relationship, the White House deplored Emmanuel Macron’s decision. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that France remained “a vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region. No doubt taken by surprise by the Australians’ failure to communicate on this new treaty, Washington also assured that it had warned Paris before Wednesday’s announcement. However, the French authorities categorically deny this.

In any case, what is certain is that this action will have an impact in the long term whether it is on France’s budgetary priorities, relations with allies, but even the stability of NATO itself. This is risky for the United States and the western. world, especially when confronted with a unified China.




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