U.S. Says It Gave France Hours’ Notice of Deal With Australia

The United States acknowledged on Thursday that it only gave France a few hours’ notice of its deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, a move that French officials have denounced as a major betrayal by one of its closest allies.

France had been trying to strike its own, multibillion dollar deal with Australia, and French officials said that the new agreement, which Mr. Biden announced at the White House on Wednesday with the leaders of Australia and Britain joining virtually, was an affront.

President Biden’s national security adviser informed France on Wednesday morning that the United States had reached the deal with Australia, revealing the plan to the top French diplomat in Washington on the same day that Mr. Biden made it public, a senior U.S. official said Thursday. The person asked for anonymity to talk about diplomatic discussions.

The degree of French anger recalled the acrimony between Paris and Washington in 2003 over the Iraq war and involved language not seen since then. “This is not done between allies,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister, said in an interview with Franceinfo radio, calling the deal a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision.”

French officials described the exclusion of France, a NATO member, from the new British-Australian-U.S. military partnership as a moment that will deepen an already widening rift between longstanding allies. President Emmanuel Macron has already said he intends to pursue French “strategic autonomy” from the United States.

But even as American officials scrambled to respond to the French anger, they dismissed the notion of a serious rift. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the United States informed the French before the president’s announcement but did not have an obligation to include the country in their arrangement with Australia and Britain.

“This is not the only global engagement or global cooperative partnership the United States has in the world,” she said. She added that the United States and France will continue to be partners in a number of other ways, noting that “the French are a member of the G-7.”

Still, the lack of consultation — and the last-minute revelation — has infuriated French officials in Washington, who on Thursday angrily canceled a gala at their Washington embassy to protest what they called a rash and sudden policy decision that resembled those of former President Donald J. Trump.

Asked what Mr. Biden thinks about being compared to Mr. Trump, Ms. Psaki shot back: “The president doesn’t think about it much.”

The gala was to commemorate the “240th Anniversary of the Battle of the Capes,” celebrating the French navy’s help in a 1781 battle during America’s fight for independence.

Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the United States and the host of the party, said on Thursday that he learned about the deal from news reports, followed by a call from Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to Mr. Biden.

A senior American official said that the Biden administration had made efforts to inform the French government about the president’s announcement earlier Wednesday morning, but had been unable to schedule the discussions with their French counterparts before the news reports appeared online.

The indignation from Mr. Étienne and Mr. Le Drian reflected the fact that France had its own deal with Australia, concluded in 2016, for conventional, less technologically sophisticated submarines. That $66 billion deal is now defunct, but a harsh legal battle over the contract appears inevitable.

“A knife in the back,” Mr. Le Drian said of the Australian decision, noting that Australia was rejecting a deal for a strategic partnership that involved “a lot of technological transfers and a contract for a 50-year period.”

French officials in Washington accused top American officials of hiding information about the deal despite repeated attempts by French diplomats, who suspected that something was in the works, to learn more.

Mr. Étienne, one of France’s most experienced diplomats, acknowledged in an interview on Thursday that there had been discussions with the Australians over the rising price tag of the submarines that France was supposed to deliver to Australia — which were not nuclear-powered, even though France has its own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

In early summer, the French government had declined to sign documents committing to the next phase of the deal — apparently because of the pricing disputes. But Mr. Étienne said the deal was about more than just a defense contract.

“We have assets in this region,” he said of France, noting that it has conducted missions in the Pacific, and strategic plans to increase France’s presence. “We take it very seriously.” He added: “It was not only a commercial contract.” He called it “an essential part of our overall Indo-Pacific strategy.”

Ms. Psaki said French “leadership up and down the ranks will continue to be important partners to the United States,” and she suggested that the work of the two countries to seek security in the Pacific would not be compromised because of tensions around the submarine deal with Australia.

“We cooperate closely with France,” she said. “As the President said yesterday, we have a range of shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific, and that will certainly continue. We don’t see this, from our end, as a regional divide.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

The Tycoon Herald