Oct 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Inside Biden's full-court press with France

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is seen meeting in Paris with the French foreign minister.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from right) meets with French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (third from left) in Paris on Tuesday. Photo: Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden knows his administration messed up with French President Emmanuel Macron and is scrambling to make amends, three sources familiar with the internal deliberations told Axios.

Why it matters: The White House's secret deal with Australia last month left the French feeling betrayed and blindsided, and furious about the loss of a $60 billion submarine contract. Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Macron on Tuesday; national security adviser Jake Sullivan is on his way to Paris too.

  • Biden and his aides have acknowledged they were mistaken to leave it to the Australians to tell the French they were killing their submarine deal and negotiating with the Americans and Brits instead.
  • Top Biden officials also know it will take some time to regain the trust of one of America's first allies, after Macron took the extraordinary step last month of recalling his ambassador for the first time in U.S. history.
  • The ambassador, Philippe Etienne, has since returned to Washington.

Driving the news: Blinken participated in a flurry of meetings in Paris on Tuesday, walking and talking for more than an hour through the ornate halls of the foreign ministry with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

  • Le Drian captured international headlines last month when he accused the AUKUS allies — the new U.S.-British-Australian security partnership — of a "stab in the back" and compared Biden to former President Trump.
  • Blinken then crossed the Seine to meet with Macron and his diplomatic adviser at the Élysée Palace. The secretary expressed support for Macron's push to strengthen Europe's defense capabilities.
  • That is a Macron priority and one of the first moves Team Biden has made to make amends with the French.

Back in Washington, Etienne returned to a White House invitation from Sullivan, followed by meetings with Blinken and several of Biden's top Senate allies.

  • The White House also announced Sullivan will travel to France this week to meet with his French counterpart.
  • Also on the agenda: preparing for a meeting between Biden and Macron — now official — on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome on Oct. 30-31.

Behind the scenes: Blinken, a fluent French speaker who spent more than 10 years living in Paris, has been at the forefront of efforts to repair the breach of trust.

  • Blinken has been in constant touch with senior French officials to hear out their concerns, including a number of calls that have not been read out publicly, according to a senior State Department official.
  • The French want more than just apologies; they are seeking stronger U.S. support for their counterterrorism missions in western Africa. They also want a full-throated endorsement of Europe's push to develop independent defense capabilities alongside NATO.
  • Hints at those demands have appeared in various readouts and joint statements, but the administration has yet to announce any concrete commitments.

Between the lines: The Biden administration was first approached by Australia and the U.K. about AUKUS in February and March, at which point the Australians said they would cancel the diesel submarine deal they'd signed with France in 2016 in favor of gaining nuclear technology and expertise from the U.S. and U.K.

  • Before agreeing to anything, the Biden administration sought assurances from Australia that its decision to abandon the French contract was a fait accompli and not dependent on U.S. actions, a senior State Department official told Axios.
  • Even after Australia assured the U.S. that this was the case, Biden expressed concerns about moving forward due to the deal's implications for nuclear nonproliferation — if Australia was permitted to obtain sensitive nuclear propulsion technology, who else could claim an exception?
  • The Australians told the Americans in June that they had all but told France that they were pulling the plug, both in writing and in direct conversations between Macron and Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison, according to two sources familiar with the assurances.

The Biden administration decided to move ahead, convinced a budding technology and intelligence-sharing partnership in the Indo-Pacific could play an important role in its 21st century strategy for confronting China.

  • Biden strongly believed from what was told to him that the French were aware that the contract with Australia would be scrapped.
  • Special presidential climate envoy John Kerry told a French TV outlet on Monday he had to explain the backlash to Biden, because the president "literally had not been aware of what had transpired."
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