US tries to make nice with France after Australia sub snub

Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses the media after a roundtable with local labor leaders at the IBEW Local #5, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke, Pool)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit France this week as the Biden administration tries to smooth over hurt feelings and potentially more lasting damage caused by its exclusion of America’s oldest ally from a new Indo-Pacific security initiative, the State Department said.

The department said Blinken will visit Paris starting Monday for an international economic conference but highlighted that he will also meet with French officials to discuss the rupture in relations.

The administration has been scrambling to mend fences with France and the European Union more broadly since the Sept. 15 announcement of the Australia-U.S.-UK agreement, known as AUKUS, which canceled a multibillion-dollar Australian-France submarine deal.

All sides agree it will take time to repair those ties. The State Department said Blinken’s talks will be aimed at “further strengthening the vital U.S.-France relationship on a range of issues including security in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Ahead of his visit, Blinken met with French Ambassador Philippe Etienne on his return to Washington after having been recalled to Paris by French President Emmanuel Macron. The recall was an unprecedented display of anger to protest the exclusion of France and the European Union from AUKUS, which is aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The State Department said Blinken and Etienne “discussed the way forward in the U.S.-French bilateral relationship” and previewed the secretary’s upcoming travel to France for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Ministerial Council Meeting. The two also talked about ways to enhance U.S. and French cooperation globally, it said.

But, U.S. officials remain concerned about the potential damage done to the relationship.

“We recognize this will take time and it will take hard work,” said Karen Donfried, the newly confirmed top U.S. diplomat for Europe.

In Paris, the French foreign ministry said Blinken and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian would meet on Tuesday for a “deep exchange in the continuity of their meeting in New York Sept. 23, to identify steps that could allow them to restore trust between our two countries.”

“The exit from the crisis will take time and require action. That is also the conclusion our American interlocutors reached,” it said.

Other matters to be discussed will include “the climate crisis, economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Transatlantic relationship, and working with our Allies and partners to address global challenges and opportunities,” the State Department said.

The announcement came after the White House announced that national security adviser Jake Sullivan had met with Etienne to try to restore trust between the countries. French officials have said AUKUS was a “stab in the back.”

Those discussions followed a Sept. 22 phone call between President Joe Biden and Macron and the New York meeting between Blinken and Le Drian on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly. Biden and Macron are due to meet in Europe later this month.

The ostensible reason for Blinken’s trip to France, which had been planned well before the AUKUS ruckus, is to co-chair a ministerial meeting of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Tuesday and Wednesday about climate change and security.

Former Secretary of State and current U.S. climate envoy John Kerry will also attend the Paris talks, which will take place just weeks before the next U.N.-backed international conference on climate, in Glasgow, Scotland.