US President Joe Biden has requested early talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, France said on Sunday, in an apparent effort to mend fences after a spat over a submarine contract sparked rare tensions between the allies.
The announcement came after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected French accusations that Canberra had lied about plans to cancel the contract to buy French submarines, saying he had raised concerns over the deal “some months ago.”
Australia’s decision to tear up the French deal in favor of American nuclear-powered vessels sparked outrage in Paris, with Macron recalling France’s ambassadors to Canberra and Washington in an unprecedented move.
But on Sunday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to downplay France’s concerns about the deal, saying the pact was “not meant to be exclusionary… it’s not something that anybody needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends.”
Biden has requested a phone call with Macron, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said, which would happen “in the coming days.”
“We want explanations,” Attal said, adding that the US had to answer for “what looks a lot like a major breach of trust.”
Macron will ask the US president for “clarification” after the announcement of a US-Australian-British defense pact that prompted Canberra’s cancelation of the huge contract for diesel-electric French vessels.
Morrison insisted that he and his ministers had made no secret of their issues with the French vessels.
“I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns,” he told reporters in Sydney. “We made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had on Saturday used distinctly undiplomatic language towards Australia, the US and Britain which is also part of a new three-way security pact announced Wednesday that led to the rupture.
“There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt,” Le Drian told France 2 television.
The recall of the ambassadors for the first time in the history of relations with the countries was “to show how unhappy we are and that there is a serious crisis between us.”
The French contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia was worth Aus$50 billion ($36.5 billion) when signed in 2016.
Morrison said he understood France’s disappointment, but added: “I don’t regret the decision to put Australia’s national interest first. Never will.”
Defense Minister Peter Dutton also insisted Canberra had been “upfront, open and honest” with Paris about its concerns over the deal — a claim quickly rejected by French Defense Minister Florence Parly.
“His statement is inaccurate,” she said during a visit to Niger. “We were never informed of Australia’s intentions.”
‘The third wheel’
En route to New York on Sunday, Johnson told reporters that Britain and France have a “very friendly relationship”, which he described as being of “huge importance.”
“Our love of France is ineradicable,” he said.
But although France has not recalled its ambassador to Britain, Le Drian’s explanation for why was stinging.
“There is no need. We know their constant opportunism. So there is no need to bring our ambassador back to explain,” he said in the France 2 interview.
Of London’s role in the pact, he said: “Britain in this whole thing is a bit like the third wheel.”
NATO would have to take account of what has happened as it reconsiders strategy at a summit in Madrid next year, he added.
France would now prioritize developing an EU security strategy when it takes over the bloc’s presidency at the start of 2022, he said.
A source at France’s defense ministry meanwhile said Paris had canceled a meeting set for this week between its Defense Minister Florence Parly and her British counterpart Ben Wallace.
In London, a Ministry of Defence source said they could neither confirm nor deny the cancelation of the meeting, but said the two countries maintained a “strong and close-working defense partnership with France, as they remain trusted allies of the UK.”
‘Nuclear arms race’
Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defense alliance, widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.
It extends American nuclear submarine technology to Australia, as well as cyber-defense, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.
Le Drian has described it as a “stab in the back” and said the behavior of the Biden administration had been comparable to that of Donald Trump, whose sudden changes in policy long exasperated European allies.
French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune has hinted that the row could affect Australia’s chances of making progress towards a trade pact with the EU, which is its third-biggest trading partner.
North Korea on Monday warned the deal could trigger a “nuclear arms race” in the region.
“These are extremely undesirable and dangerous acts which will upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and trigger off a chain of nuclear arms race,” state media KCNA quoted a foreign ministry official as saying.
For America, the spat has sparked a deep rift in its oldest alliance and dashed hopes of a rapid post-Trump renaissance in relations.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Saturday stressed the “unwavering” US commitment to its alliance with France.
Australia meanwhile has shrugged off Chinese anger over the nuclear-powered submarine order.
Beijing described the new alliance as an “extremely irresponsible” threat, warning the Western allies that they risked “shooting themselves in the foot.”