2 months after the announcement of AUKUS and the consequent cancellation of the French nuclear-propelled submarine contract with Australia, Vice-President Kamala Harris arrived in Paris for an extensive 5 day stay last week in the hope of making amends.
What exactly are the symbolic, if not geopolitical repercussions of the affair. That the unforeseen and seemingly erratic nature of the deal provoked the rage of a country with resentment from what it considered a clear slighting from the world stage is clear.
A few questions can be raised : what exactly did France gain from the ostentatious and assertive reaction of the current administration ? How important has this become in the American executive‘s considerations ?
What is certain is that the White House is making unprecedented efforts in seeming apologetic to an extent rarely seen in recent American history. Biden’s visit to Macron at the French Embassy to the Vatican proved highly symbolic in this regard, Biden effusively commenting on a much regretted American negligence, apologizing all but in name. Vice-President Harris’ week in Paris, accompanied by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, is a significant manifestation of consideration for an important ally. This, however, is from an American perspective.
Having sent strong signals with the American president at the Vatican, the Élysée persists in sending out a cautious message, awaiting beyond all else, more than implicit apologies, concrete suggestions for a common future and a sign of “good will” from its American partner. It is striking to point out the initial derision with which American media reacted to the French fit of rage. It seemed that for several weeks, no one understood why one would get angry for a couple nuclear submarines. More than a painful financial loss, AUKUS represents the devastating humiliation of having been warned 30 minutes before the press, of a major geopolitical realignment. The White House has effectively taken a more concerned approach to the considerations of its big ego ally.
During the Trump Era, Macron’s France was among the prominent nations to support the pillars of multilateralism, a narrative which Biden has made a point of not only wanting to fit into, but of taking the lead in. While AUKUS is most evocative of the United States’ shifting gaze towards China, France remains the principle military force of continental Europe, assuring its dissuasive capacities. Not to mention that France is the western country with one of the largest EEZs in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as the largest EEZ in the world overall. That France is a medium-sized power with significant military and defense capacities is the sort of puzzling equation which might have left it out of AUKUS’ considerations to begin with. If the American show of reconciliation demonstrates one thing, it is that France is a non-negligeable partner in a shifting geopolitical environment and that the White House wants to show that it realizes this.
The Vice-President’s week is dense with conferences on topics as diverse and fundamental as collaboration in space strategy and digital platforms, this last point being of chief concern for France in the wake of the controversies surrounding Facebook, over the revelations by whistleblower Haugen that the media platform’s algorithms tend to foment polarization and discord. A topic of increasing concern as French parliamentarians welcomed Haugen to the Assemblée Nationale on Wednesday last week. Friday, an international conference on Libya with, among others, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, concluded the geopolitical chapter of the visit.
Among more symbolic visits, the Vice-President began her week by visiting American and French researchers studying Covid-19 at the Institut Pasteur, as well as paying homage to the American cemetery in Suresnes, where over 1,500 fallen American soldiers from both world wars are buried. Finally, on Thursday the 11th, she is expected to appear alongside Macron at the Arc de Triomphe to commemorate the 1918 Armistice. Enough visits to revive the image of the oldest allies in the “free world”, at least for now.
In the end, what provoked the French reaction is none other than the fear of not being considered as a relevant geopolitical power. France not recalling its ambassador from the United Kingdom was a perhaps infantile way of showing its age-old rival that despite its inclusion in AUKUS, fundamentally, the pact is the US’s show of strategic strength and reorientation towards Asia and not Boris Johnson’s « Global Britain’s ». The French Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves le Driand further emphasized this by derisively calling the UK the « fifth wheel on the coach ». Similarly, it is ironic to notice that what instigated the cancellation of the French-Australian nuclear deal was partly America’s will to assuage Australia’s own geopolitical frustrations of not having been contacted during the evacuations from Kabul in the context of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Faced with this big world soup of frustrated egos, the transatlantic alliance, left for “brain-dead” by some, desperately needs to understand and more effectively implement an otherwise perfectly rational and much-needed cohesion. Perhaps the Vice-President’s visit this week is a manner of showing this, but whether it will be fruitful for transatlantic collaboration remains to be seen.