France’s humiliation by America will have lasting effects

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THE TIDE The seaweed was comfortably combed high on the white sand of the Cornish beach. Seven world leaders strolled back from their beach photo for conversation. While walking, only one person was treated with the American President’s arm, a full grip over his back, and a total of 37 seconds: French President Emmanuel Macron. The fine art of diplomatic choreography makes such fleeting gestures priceless. Wasn’t it a kind of consecration? Brit Boris Johnson may have that G7th meeting in June. But France’s president got the honor.

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When Joe Biden was elected, France saw a rare opportunity to establish itself as America’s most popular European interlocutor. Brexit, the argument goes, has diminished Britain’s usefulness in the eyes of its transatlantic ally. Germany was on the verge of losing Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the continent and the Americans’ preferred European, to retirement. Who better to fill in than Mr. Macron, an English-speaking who was once chosen as the Franco-American “young leader”? Nobody less than Barack Obama, Mr Biden’s old boss, called the French candidate in 2017 to wish him the best of luck. “Is that Emmanuel?” Mr Obama’s voice boomed over the speakerphone at the campaign office in Paris, telling Mr Macron to stay tough on the campaign until the end.

Also, France, a child of the Revolution and America’s oldest ally, seemed unusually well connected with the new government. Antony Blinken, State Secretary, was sent to a Lycee in Paris as well as Robert Malley, the special envoy for Iran. America provides information and logistics for the French-led anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel. French and American navies train together, including in the Indo-Pacific, where France maintains over 7,000 soldiers (and has a population of nearly 2 million). France’s pursuit of its own strategy in building a geopolitical presence in the region in the face of a confident China was “good for America,” notes Michael Shurkin, an American security analyst.

With a mixture of dismay, anger and annoyance, the French learned – just hours earlier – of America’s new defense pact with Australia and Britain, which torpedoed an existing French contract for the sale of submarines to Australia. Losing a major defense treaty was one thing. To be kept in the dark for months by three close friends who apparently saw no room for you was something completely different. “Allies do not do this to each other,” snapped Macron’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian “. France recalled its ambassador to America (as well as his to Australia) for the first time since 1793. This week it was Boris Johnson who jetted triumphantly into the White House while Macron sat at the Elysée tending to his wounds.

It’s just as hard the depth of the colère in Paris, as it is said, to fathom America’s inability to anticipate it. France is just as capable as any other of acting with ruthless self-interest and without consideration for others. A prickly, proud nation that doesn’t hesitate to say out loud what others keep to themselves. But the secret pact was just as brutal a blow as any Western ally of late has landed on another. Trust is the first victim. It was seven days before Mr. Macron answered Mr. Biden’s call. Mr. Biden agreed that there should have been “open consultations between allies”. Macron agreed to send his ambassador back to Washington. Confidence-building discussions are started. But the scars will remain.

What could the consequences of all of this be? In the short term, an offended France will be a more suspicious, quick-tempered partner on other issues, less willing to compromise, or to give way in, for example, trade or regulatory disputes. France cannot dictate what the European Union does; The public sympathy of Europeans for France has so far been remarkably low. But it can shape and block positions. Postponed meetings and summits may feel like a bad tool of retaliation, but the cumulative effect can be corrosive.

The episode will also force the French to, if not reconsider, their ability to pursue their own Indo-Pacific strategy, then at least push themselves to their limits as measured by an Anglophone alliance. Some voices outside the government, particularly from the political right, are calling for a more dramatic, de Gaulle-like bloom. In 1966 the general distanced himself from France NATO and went out to deceive the Russians. Ahead of the French presidential election next April, rival candidates are calling for some sort of repetition. Gérard Araud, a French ex-ambassador to America, warns of “a Gaullist temptation”.

The spirit of de Gaulle

Indeed, Mr Macron has argued that France should act as a “balancing power”. After America’s chaotic withdrawal from Kabul, the submarine episode weakened the voice of the French Atlanteans. But Mr. Macron is not an anti-American. He may not seek full confrontation with China, but he has long urged Europeans to view China as a strategic rival on industrial and security issues.

Rather, the geopolitical conclusion he is likely to draw from all of this is that he was right. That America is an unreliable ally for continental Europeans in an emerging China; that this is not a passing trend; and that Europe needs more independence. Which brings France back to its persistent but generally ungrateful efforts to build a European “strategic autonomy”.

During her call, Mr Biden admitted that European defense is “complementary to” NATO“As Mr. Macron has always argued. But the concept still unsettles the fellow Europeans. Most of them, especially those near the Russian border, like to rely on the US security guarantee. Few share France’s willingness to invest in defense or its military culture on expeditions. (Especially not Germany.) Nobody agrees what “strategic autonomy” actually means. However, low odds rarely put Macron off. After the recent snub, the French president will no doubt come to the conclusion that he has no choice but to keep trying.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the heading “The great sub snub”


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