However, Biden’s decision to form a strategic Indo-Pacific alliance with Australia and Britain has angered France and with a go-it-alone move, they see as a return to the Trump era.
Even Australia ditched a multibillion-dollar deal with France for the supply of submarines.
France claimed that it was informed only at the last minute that Australia would team up with Washington to secure nuclear-powered subs.
Meanwhile, the White House said Thursday that the US officials held high-level talks with Paris before announcing the deal.
It is only the second time the US has shared the game-changing technology with another country, after Britain.
For France, however, it is the second setback to its defence exports in three months after Switzerland spurned Dassault’s Rafale to buy US-made Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters.
France lambasts Australia, US after ‘stab in back’
France accused US President Joe Biden of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
It is to be noted that French relations with the United States had soured during the presidency of Trump who often demanded from European allies they increase their defence spending to help NATO, while reaching out to adversaries like Russia and North Korea.
Diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies.
But the White House maintained that senior administration officials have been in touch with their French counterparts to discuss AUKUS, including before the announcement.
An official told AFP they will leave it to the “Australian partners to describe why they sought this new technology”.
“We cooperate closely with France on shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific and will continue to do so,” the official added.
The French embassy spokesman denied there had been consultations.
“We had not been informed before the first news of this deal was published in the American and Australian press, a few hours before Biden’s official announcement,” the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Thursday called France a “vital partner” in Asia.
“I want to emphasise that there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and Pacific partners,” Blinken told reporters. “France, in particular, is a vital partner.”
What was the France-Australia deal?
In 2016, Australia had selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new fleet of 12 submarines worth several billions of dollars to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines.
Just two weeks ago, the Australian defence and foreign ministers had reconfirmed the deal to France, and French President Emmanuel Macron lauded decades of future cooperation when hosting Australian Prime Minister Morrison in June.
“It’s a stab in the back. We created a relationship of trust with Australia and that has been broken,” Le Drian said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, said Australia looked forward to continuing to work “closely and positively” with France, adding the country “is a key friend and partner”.
On the other hand, Australia’s defence minister said that the US-backed nuclear submarines were a better choice than France’s.
“In the end the decision that we have made is based on what is in the best interest of our national security,” defence minister Peter Dutton told a joint news conference in Washington.
Daunting questions before France
Now France faces daunting questions on how to advance its strategic priorities in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
“The decision could prompt a rethink in Paris about strategic partnerships with the anglosphere,” said Herve Lemahieu, research director at Australia’s Lowy Institute.
Since 2018, Macron has been pursuing diplomatic, military and trade ties across the Indo-Pacific, helped by France’s territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
It has deepened defence relations with Japan and India, with New Delhi recently buying 36 Rafale fighter jets from France.
What do experts say?
Referring to a French naval defeat in 1805 followed by a long period of British naval supremacy, Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of a Paris-based think tank termed it “a Trafalgar moment”.
“This is a clap of thunder and for many in Paris a Trafalgar moment,” Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation of Strategic Research, said on Twitter.
He warned it would “complicate the transatlantic cooperation in and about the region” and that “Beijing will benefit”.
Some analysts also warned France’s furious reaction could backfire. “Betrayal is the wrong language and hurts France’s position in Australia; it can poison the well,” said UK-based defence analyst Francis Tusa, adding France would now be more reliant on selling Rafales to secure its place in the global arms market.
Anne Cizel, a specialist in American foreign policy at the Sorbonne University in Paris, termed the row a “minor diplomatic crisis”. “The United States is sending a curious message, in that it wants European allies present in the Indo-Pacific, and at the same time it is now the main rival for French submarines sales,” she said.
Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations, added it confirms that the United States expects its allies to remain docile, and is no longer interested in consultation.
Terming it “a very big blow”, Antoine Bondaz at France’s Foundation for Strategic Research said it shouldn’t stop Macron from imploring European Union allies to realise the importance of ensuring free access to the Indo-Pacific and its key global shipping lanes.
Macron has repeatedly said that Europe needs to develop its own defence capabilities to be less reliant on the US. But such a vision will need the strong support of Germany, which faces political uncertainty as Chancellor Angela Merkel exits power in this month’s elections.
“Paris should look for other partnerships, with Indonesia or South Korea for example,” said Bondaz.
“Australia, however, remains a key partner in the South Pacific, and you can’t change geography.”
New Australian subs will be banned from New Zealand waters
There was also disquiet in New Zealand whose Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern admitted that she was not consulted by Biden or Morrison on the new pact, saying Australia’s new subs will be banned from entering its waters under the country’s long-standing “nuclear-free” policy.
Australia and New Zealand are locked in the 1951 ANZUS security pact.
She, however, said this new group “in no way changes our security and intelligence ties with these three countries, as well as Canada”.
Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins said the trio of countries forming a partnership without New Zealand “is concerning”.
“It’s disappointing that after many years of New Zealand’s co-operation with our traditional allies, the current government has not been able to participate in discussions for AUKUS. It raises serious concerns about the interoperability of New Zealand’s defence systems with our traditional allies in the future.”
(With agency inputs)