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After weeks of bitter recriminations, French President Emmanuel Macron scored a diplomatic win from Joe Biden that he can take to the bank six months from an election.
On the eve of the Group of 20 summit meeting in Rome, the U.S. president admitted his administration had been “clumsy” in handling a new defense pact with Australia and the U.K. But there’s more work for Macron to do when talks begin in earnest this weekend.
Macron will be dealing with the trio of English-speaking nations who cooked up an agreement for the U.S. and the U.K. to supply Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, squeezing out French suppliers.
Biden, by far the most important leader of the three, was magnanimous. Keen to put the whole thing behind him, he gave Macron what he needed to move on so Western allies could refocus their attention to the U.S.’s biggest concern: China.
By contrast, Macron seems to have little interest in mending ties with Australia’s Scott Morrison, who’s been blamed for not informing France of the bad news at the time. The two leaders spoke by phone this week but so far have no plans to meet at the summit.
And then there is the U.K., at times France’s enemy and friend over the centuries. Boris Johnson mocked Macron in the aftermath of the deal, telling him to “prenez un grip,” and now he’s embroiled in a full-on showdown over French access to fishing waters. Macron and Johnson may meet on Sunday.
On the plane to Rome, Johnson told reporters that the two countries needed to look beyond the dispute over rights for trawlers because they had “bigger fish to fry.” The political provocation was unmistakable.
Johnson was posing as a serious statesman, trying to get a climate deal done ahead of an international gathering in Glasgow. And there was Macron, still stewing over bygones. Would the 43-year-old French president rise to the bait?
Macron has often painted himself as the one who rises above the fray. In this fight, the risk is that he will appear petty in the eyes of the public. Johnson is sitting on an unassailable majority in parliament, and Macron is under attack from the far-right as he prepares to fight his re-election campaign.
Back in June, Macron and Johnson fought the “sausage war” at the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England, over chilled meats shipped from Britain into Northern Ireland. That was also the gathering when Johnson, Biden and Morrison discussed their submarine deal without Macron knowing.
It’s a cautionary tale for the French president of the dangers of getting sucked into the spat of the day. Right now that is over the fishing rights for French fishermen in U.K. waters, which France says the U.K. is unfairly withholding. Paris has threatened to take retaliation measures against Britain from Tuesday, including imposing checks on trucks arriving from the U.K. The stakes will be high when the two leaders meet on Sunday.
And despite the friendly body language, it’s not exactly all kumbaya with Biden either.
After being greeted by a smiling Macron with a tap on the shoulder, Biden stepped in and conceded that AUKUS “was not done with a lot of grace.”
Biden also said that he “had been under the impression long before that France had been informed that the deal was not going through”
But the proof, as Macron himself said, is in the pudding.
Macron expects U.S. assistance in the French-speaking Sahel region of Africa where French forces have been fighting an Islamist insurgency. France is also eyeing concrete partnerships with the U.S. on a wide range of issues including nuclear energy, and support for Macron’s push for stronger EU defense.
France will be setting the agenda for the European Union when it takes over its rotating presidency in January.
By the end of it Germany will have a new chancellor, after 16 years under the steady stewardship of Angela Merkel. And Macron himself will have been re-elected or voted out of power.
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