President Biden knew that the French government would be blindsided by the nuclear submarine pact between the US, the UK and Australia — despite his insistence to the contrary during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron last week, a new report suggests.
The Australian newspaper reported Monday that after sealing the deal known as AUKUS, officials from all three countries put together an hour-by-hour timeline detailing how the news would be announced to the world on Sept. 15.
“Everything was timed and understood completely,” the paper quoted an Australian government source as saying. “We had a decision timeline that everyone had to hit on different marks. The announcement was made within the same news cycle because you can’t cancel the biggest procurement in our history and not have an answer to the question of what next? The sequencing was understood by everybody that that was the only way we could do it.”
The document made clear that the Australian government would tell Paris it was turning its back on the nearly $100 billion agreement for France to build it diesel-electric submarines — and that officials on the US National Security Council were involved in discussions about how to let the Macron government down easy.
That detail suggests that White House knew both that France had no advance warning about AUKUS, and that the announcement would cause fury in Paris — though the US officials believed they would be spared most of France’s wrath, according to the report.
Instead, the announcement opened a rift between Washington and its oldest ally. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recalled his ambassadors to both the US and Australia over what he called the “exceptional gravity” of the situation and slammed what he called “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners, whose consequences directly affect the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.”
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do,” Le Drian told radio broadcaster France Info at the time. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
Biden attempted to smooth matters over Friday when he met with Macron on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome.
“I think what happened was — to use an English phrase, what we did was ‘clumsy,’” Biden said. “It was not done with a lot of grace. I was under the impression certain things had happened that hadn’t happened.”
When pressed by a reporter to clarify what he meant, Biden said: “I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through. I honest to God did not know you had not been.”
The Australian reported that officials in the Canberra government believe Biden’s remarks amounted to an indirect scolding of Australia in the interest of rebuilding the relationship with France. They are also open to the possibility that Biden was not properly briefed by the National Security Council on the situation — or that the president also underestimated the extent of the French government’s rage.
Biden and Macron put on happy faces in Rome Friday, with the American president saying that France “is an extremely, extremely valued partner — extremely. It is a power in and of itself.”
Macron, for his part, said that he and Biden had “clarified a lot of things.”
“We clarified together what we had to clarify … And now what’s important is precisely to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future,” the French leader added. “Stronger coordination, stronger cooperation.”
Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to visit France next month in an effort to further mend the rift.