The recall of the French ambassadors to Australia and the US – without precedent in two centuries of diplomacy between Paris and Washington – has plunged relations to depths unknown for decades.
Rifts over the Iraq war or Nato pale into insignificance. True, the French recalled their ambassador to Rome a couple of years ago, irked by the insults sent their way by the upstart Five Star leader Luigi di Maio, but that was a little warning to populists to stop encouraging the disruption of the yellow vest protests.
In another instance, France’s ambassador to Turkey was recalled after President Erdoğan questioned the mental health of Emmanuel Macron.
But froideur does not quite capture the red-hot anger in Paris, as Philippe Étienne and Jean-Pierre Thébault rack up some unexpected air miles on flights back to Paris. In diplomatic parlance, they have been recalled for consultations, and no date has yet been set for their return to their postings.
The Australians have expressed regret over the French decision, but have offered no apology.
European diplomats are bemused. They thought that with the advent of Joe Biden in the White House, the diplomatic experts were back in charge after the chaos, rudeness and unpredictability of Donald Trump – though at least Trump insulted his allies in the open on Twitter or to their face. “Joe Biden, it seems, uses one hand to greet you, and the other to stab you in the back. It is quite audacious,” said one.
Yet, in some American circles there seems to have been little comprehension of the offence caused. Asked what she thought of her administration’s transatlantic bridge-building at a Chatham House event on Friday, Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat House speaker, seemed oblivious to there being a problem. Sir Simon Fraser, a former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, captured the mood among many diplomats, saying on Twitter: “The Biden foreign policy team, which was seen as reassuringly professional and experienced, now look surprisingly clumsy and tin-eared in its miscommunication with its allies.”
Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to Paris, also warned that the rupture felt worse than at the time of the Iraq war.
He rightly pointed out that the French ambassador to London has not been withdrawn, an indication that the UK is seen as an accomplice in the six-month plot rather than a ringleader. Perhaps the French never expected anything better from “perfidious Albion”. One French source described the UK as a stowaway in the new alliance, and that the best way to underline Britain’s irrelevance was to leave the ambassador in situ.
The Foreign Office still believes the new foreign secretary, Liz Truss, will hold a bilateral meeting in New York next week with her French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian. As defence minister, Le Drian negotiated the submarines contract with Australia, and there is no one more aggrieved than him in Paris at present.
Embarrassed US state department officials initially claimed the French had been informed of the contract’s cancellation; unable to produce any supporting evidence, however, they weakly suggested that they thought it was for the Australians to inform the French. “They [the Australians] told us they would take care of dealing with the French,” one US official told the New York Times. This casts America in the role of a bystander that fortuitously happened to benefit from the French naval group’s inability to deliver a contract on time and to specification.
From the French perspective, this is simply not credible. The US talks to cancel the submarine contract went on for months in utmost secrecy. At the G7 meeting in Cornwall, Macron was given no hint that the Australians were about to scupper the deal. Three days later, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, saw Macron and left him with the impression that Australia felt reassured that technical aspects of the contract including delays, cost overruns could be resolved.
Anthony Blinken, the ever-courteous US secretary of state, also remained silent on the issue when he met Le Drian in Paris on 25 June.
Finally, on 30 August, the French and Australian defence and foreign ministers held an annual consultation, ending with a long communique that included a reference to the importance of the future submarine programme.
The Aukus pact was announced the day before the EU was to unveil its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, and the week before Biden was due to speak to the UN general assembly, the Royal Ascot of diplomacy. If his China policy is about building a network of alliances against Beijing, the US president has a strange way of constructing those alliances.
Those justifying the decision point to the superiority of a nuclear-powered submarine. They also imply that the EU, specifically France and Germany, was playing a double game towards China, offering a third way between Beijing and Washington. They point to the now scrapped investment pact that the EU was about to sign with China before Biden was inaugurated, a decision that Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had to warn the Europeans off. But France had also played a leading role in turning to the Indo-Pacific, publishing a strategy in 2018, four years in advance of the British. Its exclusion from the American plans shows a lack of trust.
From the British perspective, this is a triumph. Many diplomats had predicted the UK would become less important to the US once it had left the EU, since it had acted as the bridge between Washington and Brussels. That looks less true now. The Australian right is delighted because it has always seen Brexit as a path to a closer relationship with the British.
There are risks for Britain, though. The UK has, by remaining so close to Washington on the China issue, sacrificed some independence on how it deals with the coming superpower. Many in the British ministry of defence will be anxious, and it was notable that the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, was on the phone to his French counterpart to insist that Anglo-French defence cooperation must continue.
However, the chief task of patching up damaged relations lies with the US, and the reintegration of the French into its thoughts in the Indo-Pacific. Doubtless, those relations will be restored. For the French, the symbolism of the recall is a way of showing this is not about a lost bilateral contract, but how allies behave to one another, and the future of European defence.