President Biden spoke with President Emmanuel Macron of France on Wednesday for the first time since the United States and Britain entered into a broad new defense arrangement with Australia that scuttled a $60 billion French project to build submarines, and led France to declare its oldest ally had delivered a “knife to the back.”
The two leaders agreed to meet in Europe next month, likely on the edges of the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Italy, although White House aides said it was possible they would have a separate meeting elsewhere to underscore their resolve to repair the damage.
The White House described the conversation as “friendly,’’ just days after Mr. Macron recalled the French ambassador to the United States and suggested that Mr. Biden had done grave harm to the alliance.
While the United States has not apologized for the effort to keep France in the dark, the statement from the United States and France said that “the two leaders agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners.”
It said that “President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard,’’ and the countries had “decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures toward common objectives.” While that statement is written in bland diplomatic language, it describes the kind of consultations that are supposed to be routine among NATO allies.
The joint announcement issued by the two countries referred vaguely to common European defense projects, but those did not appear to be new — the wording seemed to be drawn out of past NATO statements. American officials were still looking for special projects that they could announce in order to strengthen their relationship with France. This included new projects in Indo-Pacific. But, some senior officials stated that they are concerned about the appearance of any such announcement as a transparent, face-saving effort compared to the Australian and British partnerships.
The core of last week’s announcement was a plan to build nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines, to be operated by the Australian navy, that are clearly being designed to counter China’s growing influence in the Pacific. Under a deal signed in 2019, the submarines will have a much wider range than the diesel-electric models France planned to build.
The true import of this arrangement was much greater: It tied Australia to the Western Defense Camp in challenging China. This came after years of Australian leaders trying to balance their relationship with Washington, their largest defense and intelligence ally, and their biggest customer for natural resource in Beijing. Now, after the Chinese government overplayed its hand with both political bullying and major disinformation campaigns in Australia, the country has declared itself a full partner in the Western effort to counter China’s growing influence.
The move was shocking to French leaders who were aware that the submarine deal was in danger but were not informed about secret negotiations between Australia, the U.S., and Britain that started last spring.
A statement before the meeting from the Élysée Palace said Mr. Macron had agreed to hold the conversation at Mr. Biden’ request, and that he expected “clarifications on the American decision to keep an ally out of exchanges establishing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.”
The statement, again reflecting Mr. Macron’s anger at what is seen in France as a betrayal, added: “We expect from our allies that they recognize that the discussions and consultations that should have taken place did not, and that this poses a question of confidence whose consequences must be reviewed together.”
The French president did not succeed in securing a reference to “European sovereignty” — a sensitive term for the United States as well as several of France’s partners in the European Union — but he did seem to gain American agreement for most of what he sought. He will be facing a presidential race in just over six months. It was vital for him not to lose heart.
The statement also called for the United States to recognize the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific, saying that the United States should fully recognize “the necessity of reinforcing European sovereignty, as well as the importance of the growing European engagement in their defense and their security.”
Mr. Macron was particularly offended, Western diplomats said, that Mr. Biden made no mention of it when they met in June during another summit meeting. The same day as that meeting, Mr. Biden also met with the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, to put some finishing touches on the deal.
American officials claimed that Mr. Biden did not intend to deceive the French but was instead relying on Australia for the information. The United States could not disentangle Australia’s contract with France, they said.
Separately, Mr. Biden met on Tuesday with Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Morrison.