Politics|Expressing fury over the Australia submarine deal, France cancels a gala celebrating relations with the U.S.
Furious over President Biden’s announcement of a deal to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines, French officials in Washington 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.
The event commemorating the “240th Anniversary of the Battle of the Capes,” which was to have taken place Friday evening at the French embassy and aboard a French frigate in Baltimore, will not happen, according to the official. France’s top naval officer, who had traveled to Washington for the event celebrating their navy’s help with America’s battle for independence in 1781, will return to Paris early instead.
The gala’s cancellation was an immediate reflection of the rage felt among French officials and diplomats in the wake of the submarine deal, which Mr. Biden announced at the White House on Wednesday with the leaders of Australia and Britain joining virtually.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister, in an interview with Franceinfo radio, called the deal a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision” like those by Mr. Trump. That followed a statement from him and Florence Parly, the minister of the Armed Forces, calling “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France” a “regrettable decision” that “shows a lack of coherence.”
The degree of French anger recalled the acrimonious rift between Paris and Washington in 2003 over the Iraq war and involved language not seen since then. “This is not done between allies,” Mr. Le Drian said. His specific comparison of Mr. Biden to his predecessor appeared certain to infuriate the American president.
Mr. Le Drian’s indignation 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.” At issue is whether the United States intentionally hid the submarine deal from the French.
French officials in Washington said the Biden administration blindsided France and 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. One official said the French government made attempts to talk to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, but were rebuffed.
The official, who declined to be named in order to discuss private diplomatic conversations, said the American actions undermine the trust between the two allies and validated the belief of President Emanuel Macron and other top French officials that America is no longer a reliable partner — a belief that gained traction during Mr. Trump’s four years in office.
The French officials said that the move by Mr. Biden on the submarine deal, along with his lack of consultation on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, will accelerate France’s move toward European sovereignty that relies less on the United States in the future.
One U.S. official conceded that the administration did not tell the French about the deal before it was announced because they knew they weren’t going to like it. The official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions, said the Biden administration decided that it was up to Australia to tell the French since they were the ones with a contract with them. The official acknowledged the French are right to be annoyed and that the decision is likely to fuel France’s continued desire for E.U. defense independence.
But another senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the diplomatic discussions said that top aides to Mr. Biden had been in touch with their French counterparts before the announcement to discuss a new security arrangement between the Australians and the British.
In a statement that did not specifically mention the submarine deal, the official said: “As the president said yesterday, we cooperate closely with France on shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific and will continue to do so.”
Friday’s gala was supposed to have been a celebration of the U.S.-France alliance, with diplomats, lobbyists, journalists and others invited to mingle together. But the French official said that it would have been “ridiculous” to continue with the event in the wake of Mr. Biden’s deal, as if everything between the two countries was happy.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.