France, U.S. tensions enter “crisis” mode

September 20, 2021 - 14:56

In an unprecedented step that has exposed the intensity of France’s anger against its allies, Paris has recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia in a furious row over the scrapping of a submarine contract. 

The withdrawal of ambassadors did not even occur during the Presidency of Donald Trump when relations between Washington and its European allies were widely believed to have hit rock bottom. 

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says President Emmanuel Macron has recalled the envoys after Canberra ditched a deal to buy French submarines in favor of U.S. nuclear powered vessels.

Le Drian said that the decision was made to "immediately" recall the two French ambassadors due to "the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on September 15 by Australia and the United States". 

He described the escalating tensions as a "crisis" in France's relations with the United States and Australia.

In a strongly worded message to the UK, he said "with Britain, we do not need [to recall our ambassador]. We know their constant opportunism, so there's no use in having our ambassador (in Britain) come to explain that to us. In addition, Britain in this matter is quite the spare tyre."

A French diplomatic source also said the United Kingdom acted in an “opportunistic manner”

The French ambassador recalls from the United States and Australia are unprecedented in nature among allies nevertheless enemies. Withdrawing envoys is usually viewed as a last resort diplomatic step taken when relations between feuding countries are plunged into crisis but they are extremely unheard off between allies.

"I am being recalled to Paris for consultations," France ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne wrote on social media. He underlined the seriousness of the issue by adding "This follows announcements directly affecting the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe."

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in Washington, said she understood the "disappointment" in Paris and hoped to work with France to ensure it understands "the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work that we want to continue to do together".

France's Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault told reporters in Canberra before returning to Paris "This has been a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership, because it wasn't a contract, it was a partnership that was supposed to be based on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity”. Thebault also argued “It was not about selling salads or potatoes, it was a relationship of trust at the highest level covering questions of the highest level of secrecy and sensitivity."

France has mostly focused its anger on Australia and in particular the United States which Paris appears to be holding responsible.

The mounting anger from France has for now at least put on hold hopes of a post-Trump renaissance in Paris Washington relations under U.S. President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a fluent French speaker, educated in Paris.

Experts say that even if U.S. officials anticipate the crisis blowing over in the immediate future, it may have caused lasting damage to Washington's alliance with France and Europe. 

Analysts have also pointed out that it will damage the Biden administration’s efforts of seeking to forge closer ties with Europe to counter China's growing power.

According to the Le Drian, the abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project that Australia and France had been working on since 2016 constituted "unacceptable behavior among allies and partners"

U.S. President Joe Biden announced the new Australia-U.S.-Britain defense alliance on Wednesday, extending U.S. nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber defense, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.

Le Drian added "There has been duplicity, contempt and lies, you can't play that way in an alliance.. Their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe”

A White House official expressed "regret" over the French envoy's recall but added "we will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance."

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price tried his best to downplay the escalating tensions. In a post on social media, Price says that Washington understood France's position and was in "close contact" with Paris. He added that the issue would be discussed "at the senior level", including at the United Nations General Assembly next week, which both Le Drian and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be in attendance. 

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby did not share the same enthusiasm. He acknowledged that telephone talks earlier between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and French counterpart Florence Parly showed "that there is still much work to do in terms of our defense relationship with France."

France views itself as a major power in the Indo-Pacific due to overseas territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia which give Paris a strategic and military foothold unmatched by any other country in Europe. Paris had made no effort to disguise its fury even before the recalls and last week Le Drian accused Australia of back-stabbing and Washington of Donald Trump-era behavior over the submarines deal.

Following trilateral alliance announcement and decision to ditch the French submarine contract, France's European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said that Paris was “unable to trust” Canberra in ongoing European Union trade deal talks”.

France meanwhile also called off a ceremony at its ambassador's house in Washington scheduled for Friday last week. The event was supposed to celebrate the anniversary of a decisive naval battle in America’s historic military adventurism, where France played a key role.

The pact is widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China. But the move has infuriated France, which lost a contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia that was worth $36.5 billion (31 billion Euros) when signed in 2016.

Australia earlier shrugged off Chinese anger over its decision to acquire the U.S. nuclear-powered submarines, while vowing to defend the rule of law in airspace and waters where Beijing has staked hotly contested claims.
Beijing described the new alliance as an "extremely irresponsible" threat to regional stability, questioning Australia's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and warning the Western allies that they risked "shooting themselves in the foot".

China has denounced those who try to cause tensions in the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, rejecting competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Beijing says any dispute should be resolved through regional negotiations and not foreign powers deploying warships and other military hardware to its backyard.

Malaysia has also said that Canberra's decision to build nuclear-powered submarines could trigger a regional nuclear arms race, echoing similar concerns that had been raised by Beijing. The Malaysian prime minister's office said "It will provoke other powers to also act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea”.

The row between Paris and Canberra marks the lowest point in their relations since 1995, when Australia protested France's move to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific and recalled its ambassador for consultations. Public opinion in France, where President Emmanuel Macron is expected to seek a second term in an election due next year, has also been very critical of Australia and the United States.

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