The most significant rift in decades between the United States and France seemed to be healing Wednesday, after French president Emmanuel Macron and US president Joe Biden got on the phone to smooth things over.
In a half-hour call that the White House described as friendly, the two leaders agreed to meet next month to discuss the way forward after the French fiercely objected when the US, Australia and the UK announced a new Indo-Pacific defence deal last week that cost the French a submarine contract worth billions.
The White House made a point of releasing a photograph of Mr Biden smiling during his call with Mr Macron.
In a carefully crafted joint statement, the two governments said Mr Biden and Mr Macron “have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence”.
So did Mr Biden apologise?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped the question repeatedly, allowing that Mr Biden did acknowledge “there could have been greater consultation”.
“The president is hopeful this is a step in returning to normal in a long, important, abiding relationship that the United States has with France,” she said.
The call suggested a cooling of tempers after days of outrage from Paris directed at the Biden administration.
In an unprecedented move, France last week recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia in protest at what the French said amounted to a stab in the back by allies.
As part of the defence pact, Australia will cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and acquire US nuclear-powered vessels instead.
It was clear there is still repair work to be done.
The joint statement said the French ambassador will “have intensive work with senior US officials” on his return to the United States.
Mr Biden and Mr Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”, the statement said.
Mr Biden reaffirmed in the statement “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a visit to Washington, did not mince his words in suggesting it was time for France to move past its anger over the submarine deal, saying French officials should “get a grip”.
Using both French and English words, he added they should give him a “break”.
Mr Johnson said the deal was “fundamentally a great step forward for global security. It’s three very like-minded allies standing shoulder to shoulder, creating a new partnership for the sharing of technology”.
“It’s not exclusive. It’s not trying to shoulder anybody out. It’s not adversarial towards China, for instance,” he said.
Ms Psaki declined to say whether Mr Johnson’s comments were constructive at a moment when the US was trying to mend relations with France.
The EU last week unveiled its own new strategy for boosting economic, political and defence ties in the vast area stretching from India and China through Japan to Southeast Asia and eastward past New Zealand to the Pacific.
The United States also “recognises the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to Nato,” the statement said.
No decision has been made about the French ambassador to Australia, the Elysee said, adding that no phone call with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was scheduled.
Earlier Wednesday, Mr Macron’s office had said the French president was expecting “clarifications and clear commitments” from Mr Biden, who had requested the call.
French officials described last week’s US-UK-Australia announcement as creating a “crisis of trust”, with Mr Macron being formally notified only a few hours beforehand.
The move had prompted fury in Paris, with French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “stab in the back”.
France’s EU partners agreed Tuesday to put the dispute at the top of the bloc’s political agenda, including at an EU summit next month.
Following the Macron-Biden call, US secretary of state Antony Blinken met in New York with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as the administration worked to repair the damage done to broader EU-US relations by the deal.
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