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'What we did was clumsy,' Biden tells Macron in first meeting since Australian submarine crisis

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By Euronews  with AFP, AP
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U.S. President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at La Villa Bonaparte in Rome, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at La Villa Bonaparte in Rome, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021.   -   Copyright  Evan Vucci/AP

US President Joe Biden told French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday that Washington had been “clumsy” in its handling of a secret Australia-UK-US security pact in the Indo-Pacific that angered Paris.

The meeting at the French embassy in Rome ahead of the G20 summit was their first in-person opportunity to mend the diplomatic rift opened last month by the announcement of the pact.

While Biden didn't formally apologise to Macron, he conceded Washington should not have caught its oldest ally by surprise.

“I think what happened was — to use an English phrase — what we did was clumsy," Biden said, adding the submarine deal “was not done with a lot of grace.”

“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before," he added.

Paris reacted angrily at the AUKUS partnership and the announcement that its main component will result in Canberra scrapping a multi-billion-euro deal for French-designed submarines in favour of technology from the US and UK.

Washington was visibly surprised by the very strong French reaction and criticism that it was not consulted despite its deal with Australia and the fact it is the only European country to have territories in the region.

A disgruntled Macron waited a week before speaking with Joe Biden, a telephone discussion that helped trigger a détente. The two leaders then launched a "process of in-depth consultations" to restore the hard-won trust between the two allies.

Macron hails 'concrete decisions'

Macron said on Friday the two allies would develop “stronger cooperation” to prevent a similar misunderstanding from happening again.

“We clarified together what we had to clarify," he added, when asked if US-France relations had been repaired. “What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years,” he said.

To that end, Macron's goal for the meeting was securing greater US intelligence and military cooperation supporting French anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel region of Africa.

Macron praised Biden’s “very operational, very concrete decisions” in recent weeks that helped the French military fighting Islamic extremists in the Sahel.

Biden and Macron also discussed new ways to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific, a move meant to soothe French tempers over being excised from the US-UK-Australia partnership that accompanied the submarine deal.

Other topics on the agenda include China, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as climate change, before next week's UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The aim of their tête-à-tête on Friday was to "demonstrate that we have been able to negotiate together significant elements of cooperation" which "allow us to frame the Franco-American relationship for the future," an adviser to the French President said ahead of the meeting.

According to Pierre Morcos, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, "AUKUS will leave its mark" but "both countries seem eager to move forward and turn this diplomatic crisis into an opportunity to strengthen the bilateral partnership and rebalance transatlantic ties".

Defence and Sahel main talking points

The Elysée was hoping to secure concrete commitments from Washington on European defence and intervention in the Sahel.

"The main thing," the French presidential office explained, is "to get everyone to agree on the fact that there is no contradiction between European defence and the Atlantic Alliance".

"It is virtuous to be able to distribute the roles in such a way that the Europeans are collectively more capable, more committed and more robust players, and that the Americans are, for their part, allies who are as reliable as ever," they added.

Macron has been pushing for closer EU defence cooperation and the creation of a joint defence force that would operate, alongside, but outside of NATO.

However, Macron's cherished "European sovereignty" arouses a certain amount of mistrust in several EU countries that rely on NATO forces, but also in the United States, where the defence industry is seeking to defend its market share on the Old Continent.

The French leader also aims to secure stronger US support in the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel.

"The American support is critical" because "it allows us to operate in better conditions," an adviser to the French president said.

Washington said in a joint statement released after the Biden-macron telephone conversation in late September that it intends to "strengthen its support for counter-terrorism operations" but has so far not yet outlined how it plans to do so.

Washington said in a joint statement released after the Biden-macron telephone conversation in late September that it intends to "strengthen its support for counter-terrorism operations" but has so far not yet outlined how it plans to do so.