ROME – President Joe Biden met French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday ahead of the G20 summit in an attempt to ease tensions with one of America’s oldest allies over a row over a submarine deal.
The sit-in is the first face-to-face meeting since French officials said they were shocked last month by the US decision to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, undermining a deal the French believed they had struck with the Australians. Allies worry that Donald Trump’s America First mentality has not completely faded with the former president’s exit from office.
Biden said the episode “didn’t end with a great deal of mercy.” He said he was “under the impression that France had previously reported”.
“What we did was clumsy,” he said. “I want to be clear: France is a very valuable partner.”
The president was more than an hour late for Friday’s meeting at the French embassy in the Vatican, after his prolonged session with Pope Francis.
When reporters on arrival asked him if he should apologize, Biden quipped: “To whom?”
After his meeting with Biden, Macron told reporters: “We are building trust again. Trust is like love. Advertising is good, but evidence is better.”
Earlier, when Macron was asked if relations between the two countries had been repaired, Macron said: “We have made it clear together what we have to clarify.”
“What really matters now is what we’re going to do together in the coming weeks, coming months, and coming years,” he said.
Biden’s first trip to Europe as president in June was “a true celebration of multilateralism and working alongside our allies and partners,” Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. Four and a half months later, we moved from ‘America is back’ to ‘America stabs France in the back’.
The US-Australia security alliance, known as AUKUS, also includes the UK, and the deal effectively scrapped a lucrative 2016 submarine deal between Australia and France.
The US decision to secretly negotiate a new deal infuriated Paris. The French temporarily recalled their country’s ambassadors to the United States and Australia, canceled a party in Washington and issued a number of statements criticizing the Biden administration.
Focused on countering the growing power of China, the Biden administration viewed the nuclear submarine deal as a way to strengthen ties with Australia, an important ally in the Pacific, while enhancing Australia’s power in the region. Likewise, France hoped that the submarine contract would strengthen its military role in the Indo-Pacific region and allow it to play a more central role in Europe’s response to a rising China.
Since the deal was announced, the United States has made a number of efforts to smooth things over. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken admitted on a visit to Paris this month that the US could have “communicated better,” adding, “We tend sometimes to take the US relationship with France for granted.” Vice President Kamala Harris also announced that she will travel to Paris in November, her third overseas trip since taking office, and Biden spoke by phone with Macron.
AUKUS will allow Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology that the US previously only shared with Britain. The agreement also allows for more cooperation between the three countries in the field of electronic capabilities and artificial intelligence, as well as in other areas.
It would also make Australia the seventh country in the world to have nuclear-powered submarines after the United States, Britain, France, China, India and Russia. Unlike those other countries, Australia does not have nuclear weapons.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan did not say what Biden would seek to cover with Macron, but in a preview of the G-20 trip to reporters, he backed off the idea of a rift between the United States and its allies.
“After a lot of comments in recent weeks about the state of the transatlantic relationship, the United States and Europe are heading to these two summits aligned and united on key elements of the global agenda,” Sullivan said.
In a statement issued early Friday, Macron’s office said the two would meet “with the aim of restoring confidence and re-launching French-American relations.”
Macron, who arrived at the French embassy in Rome hours before Biden, shrugged off stark questions from the American press about whether he was still upset with Biden.
Besides Macron, Biden on Friday met the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, which is hosting this year’s G20 meeting, and with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
At the European Leaders Summit this month, Macron said that the G20 It was the “appropriate occasion” to see how he and Biden could “re-engage” after last month’s dispute.
Conley said some of the commitments the United States could make to France to reduce tensions could include greater support for European defense efforts, more support for French counter-terrorism military efforts in the Sahel region of Africa, or increased French involvement in the Indo-Pacific region.
The White House said these issues were among the topics Biden and Macron discussed in a phone call last week.