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WASHINGTON – France’s ambassador to the United States returns to Washington this week after a diplomatic row with the Biden administration that reignited old doubts in Paris about whether the U.S. can be trusted as a reliable partner.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who in a fit of pique recalled Ambassador Philippe Etienne to Paris “for consultations,” agreed to send the envoy back to his post after a 30-minute phone call last week with President Joe Biden to ease the transatlantic tensions. The two leaders agreed to continue their talks in Europe at the end of October.
So all is forgiven between the U.S. and its oldest ally?
Non! Pas du tout! (Not at all.)
Analysts predict the French-American alliance will survive the latest dispute, just as it has past quarrels over everything from the Suez Canal to the war in Iraq.
But the French will probably be a more reluctant ally in the future, especially when the U.S. asks for a favor that means putting Gallic interests on the line, said Célia Belin, a former adviser to the French foreign ministry.
“They’ll be clearly cautious because they have observed through this crisis that the U.S. was not treating their European allies well and was willing to push an ally under the bus,” said Belin, currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington.
The latest diplomatic dust-up was triggered by the Sept. 15 announcement that the U.S. had entered into a defense partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region.
The pact, known as AUKUS, calls for the U.S. to help Australia develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. France had its own multibillion-dollar contract to provide 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines to Australia. But the Aussies canceled that deal after entering into the defense partnership with the United States and Britain.
The White House said the French had been notified of the submarine deal before it was announced, but France insisted it was blindsided by the agreement.
Macron was said to be furious over the slight but said little about it publicly. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, however, wasn’t so reticent. He accused the Australians of stabbing France in the back and compared the Biden administration’s actions to those of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
The rhetoric used by the French to register their complaint about the deal “has been a little over the top,” said Dan Hamilton, director of the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
But, “This was a public humiliation of France in its own eyes,” he said.
The French seemed particularly perturbed by the Australians’ suggestion that French submarine technology wasn’t up to snuff, Hamilton said. It’s not just that the contract was canceled, he said, “the reason for it being canceled does not cast France in a positive light.”
More than bruised egos are at stake, though. The canceled submarine contract is expected to cost the French hundreds of jobs and is creating a political headache for Macron heading into next year’s elections when he will ask voters to give him a second term.
Sensing that Macron was weakened by the submarine spat, his political opponents pounced. Left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon vented on Twitter that Macron had “surrendered unconditionally” to Biden. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen said when it comes to preserving French independence and pride, “with Emmanuel Macron, the worst is always certain.”
“This is a bad thing to do to your friends nine months before their potential reelection,” Belin concluded.
— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) September 22, 2021
What’s more, the deal appeared to undercut Macron at a time when the world has been wondering who would lead Europe with the coming retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Macron, who has argued that Europe needs to be less dependent on the United States and exercise strategic autonomy, is often mentioned as someone who could fill the void that will be left by Merkel’s exit. But the French spat with the U.S. and Australia has highlighted what Macron’s critics have long seen as the limits of his political talents.
“Merkel was in some sense the leader of the free world, or certainly a leader in Europe, because she built coalitions,” Hamilton said. “Macron doesn’t build coalitions. He asserts French leadership, and he doesn’t have that kind of bridge-building skills within the European Union.”
After their phone call last week, Biden and Macron tried to put on a good public face, issuing a joint statement that said the two leaders agreed the submarine dispute “would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners.”
Notably missing from their communiqué: An apology from Biden.
“My take is that whatever was in the joint communiqué is what both parties were willing to accept,” Belin said. “I never really anticipated a formal apology from the U.S. However, the statement indicates that the U.S. has agreed on the idea of ‘in-depth consultations,’ which is really what the French were looking for, as they wish that the U.S. sincerely engage in the process.”
A dialogue is needed on a number of issues, she said, including the future of NATO, the future of French-U.S. military engagements in the Levant and Africa, and the U.S.’s overall attitude toward European defense.
“Should the United States be willing to work on these issues, in-depth, with France and other Europeans, then they would find themselves with stronger and more supportive allies in the long run,” Belin said. “Otherwise, the transatlantic relation will continue to erode.”
Hamilton, however, doubts there will be any serious long-term consequences.
“France is our oldest and most difficult ally,” he said. “The relationship has its ups and downs.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: French-American bond: Can it survive tensions over a submarine deal?