1778 marked the last time that a French ambassador to the United States was recalled to Paris for consultations—until September 17, 2021. Angered by the announcement of a trilateral security pact between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia—dubbed “AUKUS”—which resulted in the cancellation of a $60-90 billion defense contract between Paris and Canberra, French government officials swiftly took action to signal their indignation. French Ambassadors to the United States and Australia were recalled, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian labeled AUKUS “a stab in the back,” and the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, a French appointee, called for a “pause and reset” of transatlantic relations.
A fierce response from the French was to be expected. AUKUS not only meant a loss of billions of dollars for France, but raised broader questions of the country’s international role and posed difficulties for President Macron, facing re-election later this year. But of equal importance is how and why the United States answered the frustrations from their oldest ally following the dispute. France’s reaction to AUKUS prompted the United States to revamp its efforts to up its bilateral ties with Paris. Since September, France has established itself as an invaluable player in European security discussions, effectively delivering its message across various levels of government in Washington. Although France is the primary beneficiary of such dialogue, positive results extend throughout Europe. Ultimately, the United States placated France as a means of untangling the role of European countries in its new foreign policy priorities in the Indo-Pacific.
France has long desired a more prominent international role—particularly in security and defense. The original deal AUKUS replaced—for Australia to purchase French-built submarines—was one avenue for France to increase its Indo-Pacific presence. Paris has also been one of Europe’s strongest proponents of “strategic autonomy,” or reducing security reliance on the United States, popularized after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Trump era. However, even with an at-times turbulent bilateral relationship, neither country has escalated their displeasure to the level that France did after AUKUS.
Moreover, neither France nor the United States anticipated this escalation to occur under the Biden administration. Directly after entering the Oval Office, President Biden proclaimed to European allies at the Munich Security Conference that “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.” Partners across the Atlantic welcomed Biden’s message, particularly after four years of troubled transatlanticism under Trump. Yet, immediately following AUKUS, the leading French daily, Le Monde, said in an editorial: “For any who still doubted it, the Biden administration is no different from the Trump administration on this point.”
If not apparent in Washington during the first eight months of the Biden presidency, it was now clear that action was necessary to address both French and broader European security concerns. And if increased engagement was what France desired, it is certainly what they received.
President Biden and President Macron spoke for the first time after the AUKUS announcement on September 22, one week after the deal had been publicized. In the post-call joint statement, the two announced they would “open a process of in-depth consultations” and that French Ambassador Philippe Étienne would return to Washington one week later to “start intensive work with senior US officials.”
The work began shortly thereafter: from September 23 to October 29—when Biden and Macron met in person in Rome—US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with or called Foreign Minister Le Drian, Ambassador Étienne, President Macron, French Diplomatic Advisory Emmanuel Bonne, and gave a sit-down interview on French television—speaking perfect French. Upon his return to Washington, Ambassador Étienne met with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary Blinken, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and members of both the House and Senate. Finally, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Special Climate Envoy John Kerry also all met with their French counterparts—and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Paris for the Paris Peace Forum.
This level of engagement cannot continue forever, but that is not the point. Rather, France’s swift and severe expression of its feelings of betrayal post-AUKUS made clear the significance of the moment for both French-American and transatlantic relations. In return, the approximate month-long process of mending ties has produced, as Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow Célia Belin puts it, “a flurry of joint bilateral initiatives: on clean energy, on emerging tech, on space, on defense trade. Many working groups to be, but advances nonetheless.” The United States-France Joint Statement, released after Biden and Macron’s meeting on October 29, also noted that “the United States and France will increase their cooperation in the Sahel,” a region in which France has numerous strategic interests. Paris successfully gained Washington’s attention, and will now reap numerous benefits.
The benefits do not stop at the French border, a point once more elucidated by Belin. First, the United States announced it would lift travel restrictions for Europeans a mere three days after the AUKUS announcement. This move was likely no coincidence, and was highly anticipated among officials and citizens across Europe. Second, the near-crisis that developed post-AUKUS forced the United States to consider the role of Europe in its pivot to Asia. Sure enough, the EU-US security and defence dialogue was launched in October, and consultations on the Indo-Pacific will take place later this year.
France’s role in the instigation of such initiatives will not go unnoticed, which could provide Paris with leverage during its EU Council presidency, set to begin in January. Furthermore, President Macron’s handling of the situation will likely be chalked up as a win for France, which he undoubtedly will use to his advantage in the lead-up to the French presidential elections in April. This is not all to say that recalling ambassadors and cancelling events should become the new normal in diplomatic relations, or to predict that there will be an increase in extreme diplomatic actions in the future. Simply put, France played their cards extremely well after being dealt a poor hand, and while perhaps having missed the jackpot of the original submarine deal, salvaged about as much as they could have out of what remained.
But the final question to be answered is why, out of all events, it was AUKUS that caused this progression of events. After all, the US invasion of Iraq was far more consequential than AUKUS, but it did not portend the end of our friendship with France. The spat that followed AUKUS represents the nature of US foreign policy shifting toward the Indo-Pacific—and highlights that there must be a space for European partners at the table. It is not clear what exact role France—or broader Europe—will play in a great power competition between the United States and China, but Paris, if nothing else, revealed what can occur if they are left out entirely.