TIT TIDE was pleasantly tall, the seaweed on the white sands of Cornish beach carefully combed out of sight. Seven world leaders returned from their seaside photos for interviews. As they walked, only one was entitled to the US presidential arm, a full grip in the back, and for a total of 37 seconds: French President Emmanuel Macron. The great art of diplomatic choreography makes these ephemeral gestures invaluable. Wasn’t that a sort of consecration? Briton Boris Johnson may have hosted the g7 meeting in June. But the French president had the honors.
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When Joe Biden was elected, France saw a rare chance to establish itself as America’s preferred European interlocutor. Brexit, the argument goes, had relegated Britain’s usefulness to its transatlantic ally. Germany was on the verge of losing Angela Merkel, America’s de facto continent and European leader of choice, to retirement. Who better to intervene than Mr. Macron, an Anglophone who had once been selected as a Franco-American “young leader”? None other than Barack Obama, the former boss of Mr. Biden, called the French candidate in 2017 to wish him good luck. “Is this Emmanuel? Mr. Obama’s voice rang over the loudspeaker at the campaign office in Paris, urging Mr. Macron to continue campaigning to the end.
In addition, France, a child of the revolution and America’s longest-serving ally, seemed to have unusually good ties with the new administration. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, was educated at a high school in Paris, just like Robert Malley, the special envoy for Iran. America provides intelligence and logistics to French-led counterterrorism operations in the Sahel. The French and American navies train together, including in the Indo-Pacific, where France retains more than 7,000 soldiers (and has nearly 2 million citizens). France’s pursuit of its own strategy of building a geopolitical presence in the region in the face of an assertive China was “good for America,” notes Michael Shurkin, an American security analyst.
It was therefore with a mixture of consternation, anger and vexation that the French learned, a few hours in advance, of the new United States’ defense pact with Australia and Great Britain, which torpedoed an existing French contract to sell submarines to Australia. Losing a big defense contract was one thing. Being held in the dark for months by three close friends, who obviously couldn’t see a place for you, was another. “The allies do not do that to each other”, slammed Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mr. Macron, calling it a “stab in the back” and accusing the trio of “lying, of duplicity, major breach of trust and contempt “. ”. France recalled its ambassador to America (as well as that to Australia) for the first time since 1793. This week, it was Boris Johnson who flew triumphantly to the White House, while Mr. Macron treated his injuries to the Elysee.
It is also difficult to overstate the depth of the anger in Paris as if to probe America’s failure to anticipate it. France is as capable as anyone of acting with ruthless self-interest and contempt for others. A prickly and proud nation, she doesn’t hesitate to say out loud what others keep for them. But the secret pact has been as brutal a blow as any Western ally has dealt in recent times. Confidence is the first victim. It took Mr. Macron seven days to accept Mr. Biden’s call. Mr Biden agreed that there should have been “open consultations among allies”. Mr. Macron has agreed to send his ambassador back to Washington. Confidence talks will be launched. But the scars will remain.
What can be the consequences of all this? In the short term, a scorned France will be a more suspicious and irascible partner on other issues, less willing to compromise or give in on trade, for example, or on regulatory disputes. France cannot dictate what the European Union does; European public sympathy for France has so far been particularly limited. But he can shape and block positions. Postponed meetings and summits may seem like bad tools of retaliation, but the cumulative effect can be corrosive.
The episode will also force the French, if not to rethink their ability to pursue their own Indo-Pacific strategy, at least to face its limits in relation to an English-speaking alliance. Certain voices outside the government, in particular those of the political right, call for a more dramatic development, à la de Gaulle. In 1966, the general removed France from NATO and went to chat with the Russians. Ahead of the French presidential election next April, rival candidates are calling for some sort of replay. Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to America, warns against “a Gaullist temptation”.
De Gaulle’s ghost
Mr. Macron has indeed argued that France should act as a “balancing power”. Following America’s chaotic withdrawal from Kabul, the underwater episode weakened the voice of French Atlanticists. But Mr. Macron is not anti-American. He may not seek a full confrontation with China, but he has long urged Europeans to view it as a strategic rival on industrial and security issues.
Rather, the geopolitical conclusion he will probably draw from all of this is that he was right. That America is an unreliable ally for mainland Europeans at a time of China’s rise; that this is not a passing trend; and that Europe needs greater autonomy. This brings France back to its persistent but generally thankless efforts to build a European “strategic autonomy”.
During their call, Mr. Biden acknowledged that European defense “is complementary to NATOAs Mr. Macron has always maintained. But the concept still annoys other Europeans. Most of them, especially those near the Russian border, are happy to count on the United States’ security guarantee. Few share France’s willingness to splurge on defense, or its expeditionary military culture. (Germany, in particular, does not.) No one agrees on what “strategic autonomy” really means. Low odds, however, rarely deter Mr Macron. After the last snub, the French president without a hug will no doubt conclude that he has no choice but to keep trying. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Le grand sub snub”