US President Joe Biden has told French President Emmanuel Macron the United States was “clumsy” in its orchestration of a secret US-UK submarine deal with Australia, an arrangement that left France in the lurch.
Biden and Macron greeted each other on Friday with handshakes and shoulder-grabs in their first face-to-face meeting since the deal was publicly announced in September, marking the latest US effort to try to smooth hurt French sensibilities.
Biden did not formally apologise to Macron but conceded the US should not have caught the country by surprise.
“I think what happened was, to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy,” Biden said, adding the submarine deal “was not done with a lot of grace”.
“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before,” he added.
The US-led submarine contract supplanted a prior French deal to supply Australia with its own submarines.
Biden also said the United States does not have an older and more loyal ally than France and that there is no place in the world where the United States cannot co-operate with France.
Macron was expecting Biden to make a new “commitment” to supporting French anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel region of Africa, according to a top French official.
France has been seeking greater intelligence and military co-operation from the US in the Sahel.
Macron said the two allies would develop “stronger co-operation” to prevent a similar misunderstanding from happening again.
“What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years,” he said.
Biden and Macron were set to discuss new ways to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific, a move meant to soothe French tempers over being excised from the AUKUS partnership that accompanied the submarine deal.
Other topics on the agenda include China, Afghanistan and Iran, particularly in light of the latter country agreeing to return to the nuclear negotiating table next month.
But French officials have argued that the Biden administration at the highest levels misled them about the talks with Australia.
France is especially angry over being kept in the dark about a major geopolitical shift, and having its interests in the Pacific – where France has territories with two million people and 7000 troops – ignored.
White House officials said Biden has not formally apologised to the French leader, instead, according to press secretary Jen Psaki, “He acknowledged that there could have been greater consultation” ahead of the deal announcement.